R.I.P. John D Barrow (1952-2020)

My heart is filled with sorrow as I find myself having to pass on some very sad news. I have just heard of the death, yesterday, at the age of 67, of esteemed physicist, mathematician, author and polymath John Barrow. With his passing, one of cosmology’s brightest lights has gone out.

John Barrow was my thesis supervisor. Words can’t express how much I owe him for his advice and encouragement not only during my graduate studies but also throughout the 35 years that have elapsed since I started my career, as a research student at Sussex University.

John had an extraordinary mind that combined immense mathematical gifts with an encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of literature and a wonderful flair for writing. He wrote dozens of books and a theatre play as well as hundreds of scientific articles. He was a whirlwind of ideas who had an uncanny knack of finding clever ways to crack previously unsolved problems. That he was happy to share these ideas with his students is a credit to his intellectual generosity. He inspired dozens of researchers early in their careers and continued to inspire them when they became not so young.

On a personal level, John was rather reserved and, despite his being a talented and confident public speaker, I always felt he was a rather shy person. He was a committed Christian and a regular churchgoer though he didn’t talk much about his private religious beliefs in the Department.

It is also interesting that, despite writing a number of superb popular books, giving public lectures and being a regular guest on radio programmes he steadfastly refused to appear on television. He just didn’t want to become a TV celebrity, though I suspect that if he did he would have been rather good at it.

Although I didn’t see as much of him in recent years as I would have liked, John was a member of the RAS Club which gave me the opportunity to see and talk to him fairly frequently. I always found him a very agreeable dining companion. We usually discussed sport on such occasions rather than science, actually. John was a talented middle-distance runner in his younger days and he gave me a lot of advice about training, etc, when I started running marathons. We also shared an interest in football – at which he was rather good, having had a trial for Chelsea Juniors – and we played together quite a few times in Sussex days. I remember him as a quality midfielder with a terrific engine, though he was not a natural goalscorer.

John also had a very dry and sometimes lugubrious sense of humour. I remember sending him a congratulatory email in 2003 when I found out he had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He replied thanking me but pointing out his joy at having been elected was tempered by the fact that the first official communication he got from Carlton House was a rather substantial bill for the subscription and a form on which to enter details to be used in an obituary.

It was through the RAS Club that I first heard, about a year ago that John was suffering from cancer. For a time he responded well to treatment but a few weeks ago I heard that his condition had deteriorated to the extent that only palliative care was possible. That news came as a shock as he always seemed so healthy and ageless that one imagined him to be indestructible. Today’s news was not unexpected but still distressing. The end came more quickly than we imagined but at least he was at home among his loved ones when he passed away.

I send heartfelt condolences to Elisabeth and the rest of John’s family, and friends and colleagues at Cambridge and elsewhere.

UPDATE: An obituary of John, written by Michael Rown-Robinson, is now available online on the Guardian website.

Rest in peace, Professor John D Barrow FRS (1952-2020).

29 Responses to “R.I.P. John D Barrow (1952-2020)”

  1. John Barrow’s papers about “Chaos in the Einstein equations” (BKL, Misner modes) influenced me quite a lot when I chose a thesis subject at the Niels Bohr Institute many years ago … nobody in Copenhagen was doing anything like that …but I was stubborn and pursued it (with support from Bernard Jones and Holger Bech Nielsen) I met John many times over the years to various conferences and workshops ! Sad news. Sincerely Svend E. Rugh (Copenhagen) [ e.g. on facebook under name “Svend Rugh ” ]

  2. Oh, I am sorry. This is sad news. Condolences to his family and friends.

  3. This is such sad news. Far too young. I have many fond memories of scientific discussions, always conducted with his characteristic modesty and diffidence. He will be fondly remembered by so many people.

  4. Dick Fong knew John from his Maths degree at Durham in the early 1970s but John had left before I joined Durham Cosmology Group in 1976. But I did meet him during his visits back to Durham afterwards. Lovely chap taken from us too soon. RIP

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    That’s a loss, and relatively young too.

  6. Dave Carter Says:

    I met John and knew him briefly in Oxford where he completed his PhD with Denis Sciama (who of course supervised an extraordinary number of outstanding research students). John was a very nice chap. And an outstanding scientist and mathematician.

  7. V sad news. He also had a huge interest in the history of 20th century science, especially cosmology. Whenever I visited Cambridge, he always took the time to meet for coffee and shoot the breeze about figures like McCrea and Pryce. Can’t believe he is no longer with us.

  8. I had two courses with him on the MSc in 1987-88 but I’m not sure I ever met him afterwards, so I remember him as very young (and indeed he was only 35 at the time). He also has a legacy of many ‘popular science’ books, most of which I’ve bought over the years, and I still have a fair amount of them to read.

  9. I had two courses with him on the MSc in 1987-88 but I’m not sure I ever met him afterwards, so I remember him as very young (and indeed he was only 35 at the time). He also has a legacy of many ‘popular science’ books, most of which I’ve bought over the years, and I still have a fair amount of them to read. I remember McCrea from Sussex as well, a really friendly man to the new students.

  10. Phillip Helbig Says:

    My first contact with John was back in the 1990s when my funding unexpectedly fell through (long story) and I made a last-ditch effort to find a job is astronomy elsewhere, even though my wife was pregnant at the time and working elsewhere would have been very difficult. (I ended up working in paleoclimate research before returning to cosmology at Jodrell Bank.) As part of that effort, I sent unsolicited applications to a few people whose work I found interesting. That was before the internet took off, so printed out and sent via snail mail. Some didn’t reply at all. Some sent a brief note saying that they couldn’t help. John sent a much longer hand-signed letter, and from it it was obvious that he had taken more than a cursory glance at the stuff I had sent him, even though he had probably never heard of me at the time. He wasn’t able to offer me anything on such short notice, but did suggest some other people (who shall remain nameless) whom I should contact, which I did, mentioning that John had sent me, but got no response. Such responses separate the wheat from the chaff. I regularly read the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society at the time and remember the lists of publications in the “Reports from the observatories”. John sometimes had several single-author papers in top journals and a popular-science book or two in just a single year.

    He gave a popular-science talk in Hamburg a bit later and, though I’ve heard many talks since then, it is still at the top of the list. It was absolutely perfect, not just the content but also the presentation. I even had the impression that his pauses for sips of water were scheduled to achieve the greatest effect.

    I later met him at conferences a couple of times and appreciated it that he took the time out to answer questions from unknowns like myself. In the days before arXiv, he would also send reprints if asked.

    I occasionally got unsolicited comments on papers. Although I put stuff on arXiv only after acceptance, John was quick enough (sometimes on the same day) that there was more than enough time to incorporate his suggestions at the proof stage.

    About a year ago, I bought a couple of new bookshelves. One reason was to have space for a complete set of the QJRAS. Thanks to donations from folks who had saved some issues when traditional libraries were being closed, offices were cleaned out after people had died or retired and so on, I managed to get an almost complete set, collecting them on my (usually) annual trip to England in August and when I was at the Texas Symposium in Portsmouth in December. Someone had suggested that John might have the missing issues I needed, and indeed he did and offered to send them to me, which he did rather quickly. During the corresponding email exchange, he casually mentioned that he would be starting cancer treatment soon.

    Having had cancer three times myself, I had hoped that he would be cured, and knowing the isolation of a hospital bed, didn’t hesitate to email him a question which I thought he might be able to answer (tracking down an obscure reference). He couldn’t help me, but still found the time not only to reply but also to include some related thoughts which he thought might be relevant. We didn’t discuss the cancer anymore, and I had presumed that his treatment would be successful.

    His cosmology papers were often on the more diffiuclt side of things, but he managed to reach a much wider audience with his many popular books, some of which he expanded in later editions. They are top-notch popular-science books (and that coming from someone who has read several hundred of Asimov’s books). Apart from being well written, John often touched on topics which books on similar topics by other authors leave out. His knowledge and interests went beyond cosmology to astronomy, physics, the natural sciences, mathematics and the arts. A true polymath and a really nice chap.

    When I was at Jodrell Bank, a student moved up from Sussex. I mentioned how productive he was and asked him whether John put in long hours. “No, he was pretty much 9 to 5” was the reply.

    • John certainly managed his work-life balance better than most. He put in full hours at work but was never there after 6pm or at weekends. I think that’s a valuable lesson for younger researchers.

  11. Louise Evans Says:

    Thank you for the very kind words about my dad.

  12. Phillip Helbig Says:

    I had usually seen him rather formally dressed (tie etc) but here he is a bit more relaxed, paying tribute to the late Wolfgang Rindler (another person who managed to combine top-notch science and being a nice bloke):

  13. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Message from his college:

    It is with great sadness that the College announces the death of our dear friend and colleague Professor John Barrow, Fellow of the College, and Professor of Mathematical Sciences. John passed away peacefully on Saturday 26 September 2020, at home, surrounded by his family. We send our sincere condolences to John’s family, friends, students and colleagues around the world.

    Funeral details, including how to access its live streaming, and a fuller appreciation of John’s life and work, will be issued in due course. For the time being, the Family has asked that it would be greatly appreciated if messages could be sent via email or post rather than telephone calls.


  14. […] A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « R.I.P. John D Barrow (1952-2020) […]

  15. Andrew Liddle Says:

    It’s desperately sad news. My entire nine-year postdoc career was spent at Sussex within his group (partly overlapping with Telescoper himself) and was completely transformational for me. Everyone had considerable freedom to work on whatever they found interesting, and could always rely on pinpoint advice from John on essentially any topic. As Peter says, he was a whirlwind of ideas. I remember that his PhD students often found this difficult; they’d enter his office seeking advice on some technical detail of their work, and leave in possession of four entirely novel research projects. Every week!

    Whatever he did — science, education, sport, writing — it was always done with excellence. Absolutely everything. An incredible phenomenon.

  16. Jeremy Butterfield Says:

    It is indeed so sad. Like Telescoper and the ex students and friends in this thread, I so much appreciated, not just his amazing intellect, both creative and polymathic (and his memory for scientific and historical details: so many anecdotes!) but his wonderful personality: always so friendly, approachable and helpful.
    Jeremy Butterfield

  17. Christos Tsagas Says:

    I first met John about 30 years ago. I got to know him first as teacher, then as a scientist and an advisor and over the years as a person. I keep thinking of the times we relaxed over coffee, tea, or a glass of wine, chatting about research, science, politics, history, or sports. One could spend hours talking with John without noticing how much time has gone by. It is very hard to realise that he is gone and I will miss him.

  18. Dharam Vir Ahluwalia Says:

    “Maximum Force and Naked Singularities in Higher Dimensions” was the last, or among the very last, papers that I handled for John Barrow. It will be published in the October Special Issue of Int. J. Mod. Phys. D. under my editorship. I am sad to hear the news of his passing to another realm.

    If one of his close friends would like to write a page or two — or 10 — about John and his Physics for the October Special Issue of IJMPD please send it to me under my editorial hat. The deadline is 15 October 2020.

  19. Simon Saunders Says:

    John was brilliant and kind: two of the most precious things to find, and not so often in the same person. We are all bereft.

  20. Phillip Helbig Says:

    For a tribute to Professor John Barrow’s extraordinary achievements please visit:


  21. […] supervisor and a profound influence on his work as well as a good friend. As Coles tells it in his In the Dark blog, Barrow had an engaging and sometimes slightly morbid sense of humor, dry enough to tease out […]

  22. […] his family I attended (via Zoom) the funeral of my thesis supervisor Professor John D Barrow who passed away on September 26th. This was my first experience of a funeral by Zoom and it felt very strange sitting in my office […]

  23. […] Guardian obituary of John Barrow (written by Michael Rowan-Robinson) has finally appeared in today’s print edition, alongside […]

  24. […] nothing to do with Covid-19, I still feel a very deep sadness that my former thesis supervisor John Barrow is no more. I hope after the pandemic there can be some form of proper tribute to […]

  25. […] a quick word to let you know that my obituary of John Barrow (see blog post here) has now been published in The Observatory Vol. 141 No. 1281 (2021 April) pp. 93-96. The […]

  26. So very sad. He was my lecturer and part time mentor in the early 1980s when at Sussex. I was part of the now “famous” soccer match where John scored the goals. I always enjoyed his book, and found him quite humble when grilling him on various points. I loved his cosmology course for grad students, although the viva bore no reflection on his lecture material. He just wanted to assess how you approach problems in general, rather than repeating back what you had heard. I was close to Denis Sciama in times past, and he spoke very highly of John. Right from the first day of working with him, Denis felt he had more to learn from John than the other way around. Denis would never tell me who was his best or favourite student, simply that he had learnt much from all of them. I mourn them both…

  27. […] is a special post about John D. Barrow who passed away from colon cancer last year. As you probably know John Barrow was my thesis […]

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