Obituary - Jacques Pierre Friederich (Friedel) Sellschop 1930 - 2002

Adapted from the article in the Sunday Times - 11.8.2002
With permission from the Sunday Times and Chris Barron

FRIEDEL Sellschop, the former deputy vice-chancellor of Wits University who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 72, was the founder of nuclear applied physics in South Africa and one of the most celebrated scientists in the world. He authored and  co-authored around 300 publications covering elementary particle physics, nuclear physics, diamond solid state physics and applied nuclear science.

Sellschop was born on June 8 1930 in Luderitz on the west coast of Namibia.

He completed his B.Sc at Pretoria University, his M.Sc at Stellenbosch University and his doctorate in nuclear physics at Cambridge. He was subsequently awarded four honorary doctorates, the first in 1989 from Frankfurt University in Germany.

After completing his Ph.D in 1958 he was encouraged to return to South Africa by his mentor, Professor Sir Basil Schonland. Two years earlier at the age of 26 become the founding director of the Nuclear Physics Research Unit (subsequently named the Schonland Research Centre for Nuclear Sciences) at Wits, starting it from bare veld.

At an international nuclear physics conference in Luderitz in 2000 in honour of Sellschop's 70th birthday one of the hundred or so eminent physicists who attended from around the world said that a true measure of Sellschop's greatness was that he accomplished his groundbreaking research not in a super-duper laboratory with everything at his disposal. He accomplished what he did starting from scratch. Not only did he have to build the laboratory, but also a tradition of scientific research.

Notwithstanding the pioneering work he did in nuclear physics, perhaps Sellschop's greatest achievement was that he developed a world class laboratory in basic and applied nuclear physics out of nothing.

One of Sellschop's early successes was to discover the first neutrino in nature. Neutrinos (little neutral ones) are tiny particles which are produced in stars and make up a considerable amount of matter in the universe. Millions go through the human body every second. They're almost impossibly elusive and very sophisticated experiments must beperformed to detect them. They'd been predicted in theory and there'd been a huge search toactually find one. United States scientist Fred Reines managed to detect manmade ones from a nuclear reactor, and was rewarded with the Nobel Prize. The next goal was to prove that they were prolific in nature. Sellschop alerted him to the research opportunity afforded by South Africa's deep gold mines -great depth is needed to isolate the extremely vague signal given off by a neutrino from any competing processes that might disturb the detectors. Reines came to South Africa and he and Sellschop set up their equipment three kilometres down the ERPM mine in Boksburg where space for their neutrino lab had been blasted out of the rock. On February 23 1965 they observed for the first time ever a  naturally occurring neutrino. There is a plaque commemorating this event at ERPM.

Sellschop celebrated this great moment in the bowels of the earth by quoting Keats' ode on Chapman's Homer:

'Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ when a new planet swims into his ken.'

South Africa's isolation sometimes made collaboration difficult. Physicists he invited to Wits were prevented from coming. In 1978 he was arrested and held overnight at the airport in Budapest when he arrived to attend an important international conference in Hungary. The organisers offered to postpone the conference and hold it elsewhere but Sellschop persuaded them not to. Fifteen years later he was invited to another conference in Budapest, and this time presented with a gold key to the country.

Schonland's advice to Sellschop when he returned to South Africa from Cambridge was to 'seek opportunities for your research that exploitwhat is unique to your local environment'. Acting on this advice Sellschop devoted himself to the study of diamond and became one of the world's leading contributors to the development of diamond physics.

This embraces a vast spectrum from the origins of the universe (using the environment of diamond to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang; Sellschop saw diamond as a 'messenger from the deep' to modern materials. Sellschop’s work contributed hugely to the possible deployment of diamond as a 21st century high-tech material which is likely to affect many aspects of our lives. In 1998 and 1999 he registered nine patent applications.

For his discovery of the neutrino and his pioneering work in the field of diamond physics Sellschop was awarded the highly prestigious Max Planck Society Research Prize in Germany.

In 1984 he became dean of the faculty of Science at Wits and deputy vice-chancellor in charge of all research at the university. Sellschop developed transparent systems which ensured that funds were allocated according to merit and policy, rather than personal considerations. He developed research committees so that academics knew that their field was being properly represented by an expert who could evaluate their research. By bringing Wits into line with modern international best practice Sellschop had a tremendous effect on the importance and quality of research emanating from campus laboratories. Thanks to his insatiable curiosity Sellschop knew enough about developments in many different fields to be able to spot potential winners from the piles of applications that landed on his desk.

Wits astronomer Professor David Block credits Sellschop's vision for his (Block's) discovery of cold cosmic dust. In the face of some scepticism the young, unknown Block claimed that 90 percent of the dust in galaxies was undetected, and he proposed revolutionary research to prove his point. Sellschop used his considerable reputation, and legendary ability to sell science to the captains of industry, to win financial backing for Block's research from Anglo American. He found his dust and the triumph was recorded on the cover of the international scientific journal, Nature.

Sellschop retired officially in 1996 but never let up on his research. In probably the wittiest, most entertaining speech they'd ever heard, he explained his attitude to a bunch of nuclear physicists at a conference in Italy in 2000 (dedicated to him) with a quote from Shakespeare:

'To business that we love, we rise betime
And go to't with delight.'

Sellschop always worked late into the night. At home he had a sitting desk and a standing desk. When he felt himself dropping off he transferred to his standing desk. If sleep was insistent he dived into his pool and, fully awake again, continued his work.

Sellschop acknowledged the fear that researchers live with of being unable to bring issues in which they've invested heavily, to 'a sensible conclusion'. However, he said, he preferred to take his cue from the 'brash self-confidence' of Picasso, who once claimed:

'I do not search; I find'

Sellschop is survived by his wife Sue and four children.

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