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Tudor Johnston, a brilliant Canadian physicist, studied plasma

By on September 19, 2016 in Articles with 0 Comments

physicist Tudor Johnston’s research in Varennes, Que., was devoted to creating plasma in enclosed places, which could be converted into energy. a process which, if properly harnessed, could produce limitless energy with no lethal by-products. (Christian Fleury)

physicist Tudor Johnston’s research in Varennes, Que., was devoted to creating plasma in enclosed places, which could be converted into energy. a process which, if properly harnessed, could produce limitless energy with no lethal by-products.
(Christian Fleury)


Plasma physics is such an arcane subject that someone once said a particular Tudor Johnston book on the subject could be understood by maybe 50 people in the world. But the brilliant Canadian scientist, who has died at the age of 84, could explain his big ideas to the layman in just a few minutes.

“Tudor was good at explaining things orally and in writing, using precise and elegant language. He was an internationally renowned scientist and was invited all over the world to explain his work in plasma physics and related areas,” said Federico Rosei, a fellow scientist at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS), who described Dr. Johnston as his mentor. He suggests it is perhaps an exaggeration to say that Dr. Johnston’s more complex books could be understood by only 50 people. “But certainly by not more than five million.”

The two men wrote a book together called Survival Skills for Scientists (2006), a humorous but practical guide to making a living in science.

“Scientists learn in the lab but are sometimes unprepared for the real world. Our book tells scientists how to find a job, get funding and get your ideas published,” Dr. Rosei said.

Plasma, the focus of Dr. Johnston’s research, is superheated matter and exists when temperatures exceed 3,000 degrees Celsius. The superheated gases in the Sun are plasma. Space vehicles re-entering Earth’s atmosphere create such heat that they are surrounded by plasma. That was precisely the problem Mr. Johnston worked on for NASA while he was a University of Houston physics professor from 1969-73.

The greater part of his career was spent at INRS, in Varennes, Que., a branch of the University of Quebec. Much of his research there was devoted to creating plasma in enclosed places, which could be converted into energy. That is nuclear fusion, the process by which the sun generates energy. If it could be harnessed there would be limitless energy with no lethal byproducts. What we use now is nuclear fission.

Nuclear fusion is a simple concept, first talked about in the 1920s. But it is elusive. Why Nuclear Fusion is always 30 years away was the title of an article in the science magazine Discover in March of this year. The field’s immense potential and immense problems explain why a man such as Dr. Johnston could spend a lifetime studying it. He thought pure research was worthwhile, since it sometimes takes decades for pure research to produce results that ordinary people can see.

Plasma physics does have some practical applications today: Plasma welding, for example, is used to cut very strong metals, such as titanium.

Walter Tudor Wyatt Johnston was born in Montreal on Jan. 17, 1932, into a scientific-minded family. His father, Henry, was an engineer and his grandfather, Wyatt, took over the pathology department at McGill from Dr. William Osler. His mother, the former Beatrice Lyman, was active in the SPCA in Montreal.

Young Tudor went to Lower Canada College then McGill University, where he graduated in engineering. He then went to Cambridge, in England, earning his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1956.

When he returned to Montreal, he became a senior research scientist at RCA’s satellite division. During his time in England he had met Anne Pickering, but being an indecisive man, he never got around to actually proposing. His son Bruce said Tudor’s father forced the issue.

“My mother was in Australia and my grandfather, after speaking with her parents in England, wrote to her saying, ‘I will pay for you to come and visit Canada and see if my son is up to it.’ My mother arrived with her wedding dress and they were married in December of 1958.”

After RCA, Dr. Johnston worked on plasma physics with a group of scientists at the University of Montreal. From 1969 to 1973, he taught at the University of Houston and worked with NASA. When spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere they were briefly cut off from radio contact on the ground because of the plasma envelope created by the heat of re-entry caused by the Earth’s atmosphere.

When he returned to Canada in 1973, Dr. Johnston stared work at the University of Quebec’s research centre. An anglo-Montrealer, Dr. Johnston was totally at home conversing in French, something that was certainly not true of most of the boys he went to school with at LCC in 1940s. Over his long scientific career he published more than 150 scientific papers and several books.

“He never talked about his work unless you asked him about it,” Bruce Johnston said.

Though he was a theoretical physicist, Tudor Johnston was an immensely practical man, perhaps owing to his early training as an engineer. He was never without a knife and pair of pliers in case he needed to fix something, and carried a pen on a lanyard around his neck in case he needed to take notes. His glasses were always held on with a strap after he lost a pair while sailing.

“If something was broken, at home or on a sailboat, he liked to come up with a solution to be able to fix it with material at hand,” his son Bruce said. “My father was an outgoing man, a cross between Seinfeld and Einstein.”

He retired from INRS in 2010 and became a professor emeritus in 2012. He lived in a stone house on a 100-acre farm just outside the village of Knowlton that his father had bought in 1952. His main pastime aside from work was sailing on Brome Lake at Knowlton or in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where his family has a summer house at Cap-à-l’Orignal.

Dr. Johnston died at home in Knowlton, Que., on Aug. 24. He had a rare form of cancer. He leaves his wife, Anne; his sister, Ursula; his three children, Malcolm, Bruce and Caroline; and four grandchildren.

About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .

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