Dr David Summers

1947 – 2009
Physicist and Poet

Dr David Summers

Dave Summers was born in Victoria, British Columbia, in August 1947 and died on 5 October 2009. His parents were both immigrants from Scotland and this coloured his early life – and left a permanent mark on his character. David was a precious child of relatively elderly parents – an older sibling had died in infancy – so was much loved and protected.

In his early teens Dave was already writing poetry that made an impression on those who saw it. It was often suffused with gloom and angst, characteristics that were as true of his works late in life.

He did well at school and subsequently studied physics at the University of Victoria. After graduating in 1969, Dave was accepted on to the MSc Degree Program at the University, working on induced magnetic fields in a geophysical context, under the supervision of Professor J. T. Weaver.

In August 1971, after completing his program, he came to Britain. After an interlude teaching mathematics at a catholic school in London, he resumed his work on geophysics at Edinburgh University in 1974. He was pursuing the problem of the inversion of geomagnetic induction data. Having achieved his PhD, he took a number of post-doctoral appointments, most memorably at the University of Goettingen in Germany.

In 1980, Dave's research interests took the turn which would lead to his groundbreaking – and tragically incomplete – work on turbulence. He took up a post doctoral post in the Architecture Department of Edinburgh University, numerically modelling wind flow around a collection of buildings, with the aim of assisting the design and orientation of buildings in the built environment. This work drew his attention to the problem of turbulence, and how difficult it was proving to the research community.

This work led to a long and fruitful association with Professor Alexandre Chorin of the University of California in Berkeley. Chorin was a pioneer of Vortex Method. Dave first visited Berkeley in 1981 and their collaboration continued until it was broken by Dave's death. Dave joined what is now Edinburgh Napier University in 1985 and remained there until his death.

Following many years collaboration and learning from the ideas of others, Dave developed an understanding of homogeneous turbulence in terms of fluid impulse. Turbulence is of great importance to engineers and the reduction of turbulence is a central preoccupation in many design processes – aircraft, space-shuttles, the transport of fluid in conduits and pipes, the prediction of currents and weather and for the modelling of many industrial processes, such as the prediction of plumes from chimneys and the distribution of effluent from discharge outflows. It is this universal importance of the field that means that any promising new approach tends to attract substantial resources.

The 'turbulence community' was convinced that the resolution of the problem would require large investment in future generations of powerful computers. Dave's notion that a simple understanding of the nature of impulse can contribute significantly to resolving this problem runs counter to this expectation. Dave put it thus: “This climate of expectation has given me a small window of time to develop my ideas in a kind of 'sanctuary' where people watch on, perhaps in a spirit of bemusement”.

Dave's fourth paper in this field, developed with his colleague and one of the Trustees, Dr Dave Roberts, appeared in the Journal of Turbulence.

The key to Dave's success in this area was creativity. This creativity was further expressed in his life away from Edinburgh Napier University. Throughout his life he continued to produce poetry, often linked to his personal life and work. He fell under the spell of the Russian Language and its literature, learning Russian in Edinburgh and Russia. He had produced translations of the poems of Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Blok, translations which combined an understanding of language with the creativity of a poet. His commitment to literature was reflected in his Will, whichleft his entire estate to be applied for the benefit of literature in Scotland.

Dave had a cottage at Parton in Dumfries and Galloway, a location chosen as much for its connection with his hero, James Clerk Maxwell, as for its beauty. Here he escaped from Edinburgh and the rigours of his research to spend time in his garden and working on his poetry. It is here, in the beautiful burial ground of Parton Kirk that he was laid to rest, close to the grave of James Clerk Maxwell.