Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • SIR ERIC ASH (1928-2021)



    SIR ERIC ALBERT ASH, a pioneering innovator in electrical engineering, leader in education, and former rector of Imperial College London, died on August 22, 2021, at the age of 93.

    Born Ulrich Asch in Berlin on January 31, 1928, to Dorothea Cecily (Schwarz) and Walter J. Asch, his family escaped Nazism and moved to England in 1938. In London, Eric studied at University College School before earning a scholarship to Imperial College London at age 17. At Imperial he earned a first-class bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering. He then completed his PhD on “Electron Interaction Effects” (1952) under the supervision of Professor Dennis Gabor (NAS 1973) (who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of holography). Eric’s thesis characterizing the scattering of electron beams by a plasma was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

    Eric received a Fulbright Scholarship to serve as a research fellow at Stanford University (1952–54), where he worked on microwave tubes. He then returned to London and attended Queen Mary College for a year before becoming a research engineer at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories Ltd. (1955–63). There, he worked to solve problems in communications engineering, in particular investigating traveling wave amplification in microwave tubes and attempting to achieve similar effects in the solid state.

    He joined University College London as a senior lecturer in 1963, was promoted to professor in 1967, and became head of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering in 1980. He also served the broader community, notably as president (1987) of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

    In the early 1970s he proposed and successfully demonstrated a method of overcoming the well-known Abbé resolution limit in imaging at microwave frequencies. His approach replaced the lens with a subwavelength aperture in an open-cavity resonator: the object was scanned in front of the aperture, and its perturbations generated signals that allowed serial image formation. His 1972 paper in Nature was the first to demonstrate this superresolution technique, later extended to both optical and ultrasonic microscopy.1

    Eric’s technical achievements were widely celebrated with awards and fellowships. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society (1977) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (1978). He was awarded the Faraday Medal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1980), and he received the Marconi Prize (1984) “for leadership in electronic technology including surface acoustic wave devices.” He received the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 1986, “In recognition of his outstanding researches on acoustic microscopy leading to wholly new techniques and substantial improvements in resolution of acoustic microscopes.” And he was very proud to be elected (2001) an international member of the US National Academy of Engineering.

    One of Eric’s legacies as rector of Imperial College London (1985–93) is the college’s expansion into medicine through its merger with St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in 1988. He felt that it was time for Imperial to reposition itself for the 21st century and that enrolling medical students would raise the number of women students, something that he felt was very necessary. The expansion has had a long-lasting impact and brought tremendous strength to Imperial through collaborations among medics, scientists, engineers, and business school academics.

    Eric shared his wisdom, wit, and warm advice freely with colleagues and students alike. He was strongly committed to increasing the number of women in the student and academic staff bodies, which he attributed to the fact that he had five daughters. Women colleagues recall his “striking” commitment to this cause, encouraging and championing them to follow both their career and their personal ambitions. Within a year of his appointment as rector, the number of female professors at the college had doubled.

    Also fondly remembered from his tenure were regular dinner parties at the rector’s residence, where he and his wife Clare entertained guests from junior to senior academics. A hallmark of these dinners was Clare’s innovation of a new seating plan between courses—guests would move and converse with a different set of people.

    After retiring in 1993, Eric remained very active at the college and in the Royal Society, traveling by bicycle to lectures, concerts, and academic meetings. As he approached and then passed the age of 90, colleagues remember being increasingly impressed that he would turn up on his bicycle, having cycled from his home in Islington. His love for cycling was captured in his official college portrait, showing him on his bicycle.

    Eric’s colleagues and former PhD students recall often lunching with him at the Royal Society—his “home away from home” during his later years—where he was also treasurer and vice president (1997–2002).

    Eric and Clare were strong supporters of Imperial’s talented student musicians, creating the Ash Scholars program that supported students in their studies of music alongside their rigorous scientific pursuits. Faithful attendees at Imperial College Symphony Orchestra concerts, they beamed with delight while surrounded by the wonderful Scholars. Their love of music and musicians leaves a lasting legacy at Imperial and is a meaningful example for philanthropists.

    During his retirement, Eric remained dedicated to education. He worked on educational technology as emeritus professor at UCL’s Department of Physics (1993–98), and was CEO of the Student Loans Company (1994–96). He also served as trustee for the Afghan Educational Trust, Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust, Royal Institution, London Science Museum, and Wolfson Foundation.

    His interests outside of engineering included the state of universities and scientific research, energy policy, and climate change. His final major lecture was the 2014 Wolfson Memorial Open Lecture at the University of Cape Town, delivered at the age of 86, entitled “The climate change threat. Any room for optimism?”

    Eric was a visionary leader and scientist who will always be remembered for his warmth and optimism. I loved spending time with him, whether to celebrate the unveiling of Ernst Chain’s Blue Plaque or to honor others at dinners for the Schrodinger lecture or the National Academy of Engineering – Royal Academy of Engineering joint conference.

    He gave so much to Imperial and the world through his mentoring, research, innovation, and steady leadership. His work changed the way we communicate and left a meaningful legacy in modern electronics, from televisions and mobile phones to satellite communications.

    Sadly, Eric’s wife of 67 years, Clare, passed away in March of 2021. They are survived by daughters Gill, Cany, Lucy, Emily, and Jenny, and 11 grandchildren.

    1Ash EA, Nicholls G. 1972. Super-resolution aperture scanning microscope. Nature 237(5357):510–12.