David and I first bumped into each other in the office of Dr W.S.C. Williams (Bill), a physics tutor at St. Edmund Hall Oxford during Michaelmas Term (around the middle of October) 1990.
At that meeting, as keen eyed 18 year olds with a clutch of ‘A’ grade A-levels under our belts, we were nervous about starting at a degree in Physics at one of the countries top universities, while at the same time, excited about what lay ahead.
That year, there was an intake of around 10 students for physics at our college. The tutors wasted no time in setting us some work to keep us out of the bar. What we didn’t realise was that the work served not just that purpose, but also the secret aim of pairing the students off according to their ability for the upcoming tutorials (teaching at Oxford being tutorial based).
I was lucky enough to be paired off with David T. Ryan. We spent the first year at college drinking, socialising, working from time to time, and generally enjoying the student lifestyle. At the end of the first year, we sat our ‘first public examinations’ – which we needed to pass in order to progress to the second year of the course. David passed with a Scholarship (which meant he did rather well, and the college awarded him £300 for his efforts), and I managed to scrape an Open Exhibition (which meant I also did rather well, though not as well as David, and the college awarded me £150 for my efforts).
During the last term of the first year, we needed to fix up accommodation for the second year. A small gang us of, David, myself, Helen Spink, Julie Coulson and Jack Harris, rented a house in a less than illustrious suburb of Oxford called Cowley.
The second year was really when David got heavily into his sport. He would regularly be out on the river at 5 or 6am, go to lectures for a few hours until perhaps 12 noon, then go for a 15 mile bike ride before tutorials in the afternoon, at perhaps 3pm, before going back to the river for an hour or two, before finally ‘going home’ for dinner. As I recall, he dumped his girlfriend Harriet during the second year, because she and his sporting ambition were just not compatible. Such was Dave.
It was during that time that David, Julie and myself became very close friends. We got expert at dividing pans of Pasta equally into three portions, bottles of wine into three, etc. Rarely an evening went by when we would not be together, usually in my room, watching TV, or completing work for upcoming tutorials. In general, we enjoyed life. David’s room in the rented house managed to decompose over time. My memory is actually clouded over whether or not his room actually had carpet or not. I think we saw it when we moved in, and perhaps once again when we moved out. The rest of the time it was generally knee deep in sportswear, text books, bikes, and scribbled notes. Despite that, David always seemed to know in which general area any particular item would be located. We also got into a routine of David sleeping at lectures, with me frantically making copious notes (though not always understanding them). The deal was a simple one – David got to copy my notes, and I got the benefit of him explaining to me what was meant by them. It worked.
Then we got into the third year – and finals. We worked our socks off that year, and watched any number of historians and lawyers do their exams before us poor scientists (draw your own conclusions on that one). We worked through every single question on every single examination paper which had been set for Physics from 1980 to 1992. We were ready. Finals lasted about two weeks, with generally two 3 or 4 hours exams per day for the entire period, with only Sunday for rest – it was tough. We both commented that having ‘done’ a particular exam and subject, we could feel entire sections of brain going into ‘erase’ mode. Comments like ‘ok, now we can forget all about thermodynamics’. We compared notes at the end of each exam, and more often than not, we compared our answers to the trickiest questions – sometimes they matched, and other times not – we would generally know who had got it right with hindsight. We finished finals, and got mighty drunk. Now we just had to wait.
Results day. We had both made the journey back to Oxford to look at the door of examination schools for the results. We had both scored First Class Honours degrees. This put us both in the top 20% of all Oxford candidates who sat the physics finals examinations that year. This was shortly followed by a breakdown of individual paper results. We were in for a shock.
David had not only got a First Class Honours degree in Physics from Oxford, he had got the top First. This meant that summed over all the papers we sat, that out of more than 200 physics students at Oxford University that year, David had the highest combined score of any candidate. Now bearing in mind that only around the top 1% of all A-level students actually get a place at Oxford in the first instance, this mathematically puts him in the top 0.5% of the top 1% of all physicists in Great Britain at that time.
As a result of getting the top First, David was awarded the Scott Prize in Physics. This is a small bursary of money to the student who performed best in the finals examinations at Oxford – but more than that, it was recognition of his fantastic ability as a scientist and scholar. Many a student in his position would have let this go to their heads – but not David. He took it in his stride, and it was in fact some weeks after he was awarded the prize before he told anyone. Everyone around him could see his brilliance – and I think David knew he was brilliant too, but he showed great humility with others, and was far more likely to help than to mock. This got us to the summer of 1993.
Then the fun started !
We both decided, more out of laziness than anything else, that having one of these doctorate things might be fun. So we decided to stay at Oxford for another three years to get one.
So after the summer break, David, Julie and myself, went back to Oxford to rent another house for the forthcoming studies. Again in Cowley, but in a slightly less ‘student rich’ area near a shopping centre.
To cut a long story short, we lived together as a small group for a further three years in Cowley. David covered more miles on his bike than I did in my car. We hid from the landlord, and watched same burn the back lawn to a cinder because we’d let the grass grow 4 feet tall. We exploded plastic bottles with track pumps. By experiment, we worked out that 1.5 litre bottles of wine works out at almost precisely 3 pint glasses full. We cooked popcorn by the bin liner full. We had our ups and our downs, but we never fell out. It was business as usual. David completed his D.Phil., I completed my D.Phil., and Julie worked as a manager for Tandy (Radio Shack). Julie and I decided that it might be nice to get married.
We then started to get serious about jobs, and David continued to work at the university with Harry Jones but with Oxford Instruments backing. I got a job at a computer software company, and we once again wound up living under the same roof, for another year, this time with Fred – a magnet technician from the university.
It was then the end of 1997. We parted ways properly – except that we stayed in very regular contact, with David coming to stay with us on more than one occasion. When Julie and I got married in September 1998, I had no hesitation in wanting David to be our best man, and indeed he was the best best man you could ask for. We had a great stag weekend in Wales – we went quad biking, and drinking, and generally larking about.
As soon as David told me that he’d been head hunted to work for GE in the USA, I had always expected David to be similarly head hunted by an attractive cheerleader soon after his arrival. I think his native Yorkshire values probably hindered him in his pursuit a tad. However, when I got a call from his family, I had the honest expectation that he was getting married, and couldn’t reach us because we had only just moved house and hadn’t yet sent out an updated address or phone number. To hear instead of his tragic death knocked me sideways, first shock, then a sense of loss, then anger. For the first time in many years, I cried.
As events unfold, I further heard that the cause of his death was some 18 year old Joshua and his uninsured modified car, with his previous speeding offences somehow miraculously changed through some crazy thing called ‘plea-bargain’ down to ‘parking on the highway’. It frankly makes my blood boil with fury.
I was honoured to attend David’s funeral in his home village, and was truly touched to see so many of his friends and colleagues also attend. David would have been surprised to see such a large attendance, and I’m sure he would have been the first to reach the food at the reception later. I have a spooky feeling that he was in fact present at the reception, and I’m sure, even as a physicist, that our paths will cross again one day. The funny thing is, that while we were studying for our doctorates, we often commented on the ‘conveyer belt’ that is Oxford University – with new people turning up every year, following a largely predictable personal development and educational drill. We observed that if you were to take a snapshot at yearly intervals, the faces and personalities would stay broadly the same, and only the names and calendar would have changed. I’d like to think that somewhere within the university, right now, there is another David T. Ryan, and that the only reason we can’t see him is that we’re stuck in the wrong bit of the calendar.
Nothing will bring my best friend back. And his loss is truly tragic in the proper sense of the word. One individual, through reckless actions has killed a ‘one in a million’ scientist, and my very dear personal friend. Instead of posting $20,000 bail, his family might like to donate a similar amount to the scholarship fund set up in David’s name.
I’ll finish by saying something I’ve said to Dave more than a thousand times before.
‘See you Dave’. God Bless.