Simon Altmann obituary | Materials Science

Scientist Simon Altmann, who has died aged 98, pushed the boundaries between theoretical physics, theoretical chemistry and mathematics.

Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he was the son of Aarón Altmann, a street vendor, and his wife, Matilde (née Branover), a secretary. Simon earned a PhD in chemistry while taking as many math and physics courses as possible. In 1949, as a British Council scholar, he traveled to King’s College, London, studying for a second doctorate under Charles Coulson, my father, who had just been appointed professor of theoretical physics. The Coulson and Altmann families have been friends ever since.

In 1948 Simon had married Bocha Liebeschütz in Buenos Aires, and in 1950 he joined her in London, where he continued his studies for a doctorate in biochemistry at University College. Among the researchers and fellow students at King’s she made life-long friends, including Roy McWeeny, Peter Higgs and, in particular, during a difficult time for her, Rosalind Franklin, who took the famous photographs showing that DNA took the form of a double. helix.

In 1952, Simon moved to Oxford University. My father had been appointed professor of applied mathematics and Simon came as a research assistant. At the Institute of Mathematics they used advanced mathematical techniques, along with the new resource of computers, to determine the shapes and structures of molecules. Their solutions, or approximations, to the equations that determine these structures could be tested by experimental chemists and crystallographers and, more often than not, were confirmed to be correct.

As a student in Buenos Aires, Simon had been briefly imprisoned for his anti-Perón activities. After the fall of Juan Perón’s regime, the situation changed. Simon was offered and accepted a position at the University of Buenos Aires in 1957; but he quickly became disillusioned with university politics and a year later returned to Oxford.

In 1959 Simon became a university lecturer in the theory of metals, transferring to the department of metallurgy (now the department of materials). The following year he started teaching at Brasenose College, where in 1964 he was elected as a teaching staff in physics.

From 1955 until his death in 1973, my father ran summer schools in Oxford which attracted chemists from all over the world and provided them with information about theoretical chemistry. Simon was always there, equally capable of making complex processes accessible to a very mixed audience. This introduced him to many international contacts and visiting courses, especially in Rome, fostering his love for Italy.

Although substantially self-taught, Simon was an accomplished mathematician, specializing in the applications of group theory to crystallography and understanding the structures of solids. His work on quaternions, which can be used to describe rotations about multiple axes simultaneously, has been used in robotics and computer graphics.

Possessing a lifelong interest in philosophy, poetry, classical music, art and architecture, he designed a house in Italy where he spent every summer holiday he could manage. After his retirement in 1991, he published works in the philosophy of science; and took an interest in the symmetry inherent in group theory in unexpected directions, exploring symmetries in Renaissance paintings and publishing several works on art history.

Bocha died in 2012. He is survived by his sons, Dan, Simon and Paul.

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