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Tributes paid to Dr Ron Ferrari, 1930-2023

Fellows have paid tribute to Dr Ron Ferrari, Fellow in Engineering, who died on 9 May 2023, aged 93.

Dr Ferrari’s research in electromagnetic waves led to teaching at Cornell and research in Montreal, measuring glacial ice sheets in Iceland, and engaging with engineers and permafrost scientists in Cold War Russia.

Professor Piero Migliorato said:

Ron Ferrari’s contribution is in the mathematical modelling in this area, specifically in the use of a method, the Finite Element Method (FEM) which enables one to solve, by using computers, otherwise intractable mathematical equations, encountered in the propagation of electromagnetic waves.

Ron was a valued member of the Engineering team at Trinity and, with his quiet friendly demeanour, a well-loved colleague.

Professor Hugh Hunt said:

It is very sad to learn of Ron’s passing. He was very active in College teaching when I first arrived in Trinity. At our start of term Director of Studies meetings (we would meet in his rooms in King’s Hostel backing onto the Bowling Green) Ron would prepare beautiful hand-written timetables with supervision arrangements – I have kept copies of these as they bring back great memories.

Today we take for granted the everyday items enabled by electromagnetic waves, including radio, radar, television, WIFI. Progress in this field occurs through experiments coupled with mathematical modelling – which became Dr Ferrari’s lifelong interest and recognised field of expertise.

It was kindled in his first civilian job in the research laboratories of the General Electric Company in Wembley, where he constructed a microwave amplifier, which led to his first scientific paper.

In his Eightieth Birthday speech at Trinity Dr Ferrari recalled: ‘This was the start of my lifelong interest in modelling electromagnetic devices on a computer. However, my rather capricious gas discharge device was overtaken by the invention of laser and semi-conductor high frequency devices.’

Before GEC, he had spent three years as a commissioned officer in the RAF, based at Bomber Command headquarters in High Wycombe, working on radar. His electronics knowledge came from both his dissertation research – on the mathematics of elastic waves in concrete – as well as summer jobs in the research laboratories of the Dutch Post Office and at a hydropower station in the Artic Circle.

That curiosity might well have been sparked as a child in the company of his father, ‘a thorough artisan, good and ingenious with his hands’, who had been brought from northern Italy to Essex by his mother, who moved the family into a disused pub in Docklands and set up a shop and café.

‘My childhood was permeated with Dad’s things mechanical and electrical. He messed about with motorbikes, an Austin 7 car and many other bits of engineering, while my earliest memories include listening to the radio which he had himself built,’ Dr Ferrari wrote in his Eightieth Birthday speech.

One of four siblings growing up in Dagenham during the Second World War, Ron slept through the bomb that hit their back garden during the Blitz of 1940, creating a 25ft crater, on the edge of which was the family’s Anderson air-raid shelter.

Despite the disruption of war Ron prospered academically, receiving the science prize in fifth form, presented by then Minister for Education RA Butler, and playing the violin in the school dance band. He secured a Royal Scholarship to study Mathematics at Imperial College.

Twenty years later, Dr Ferrari would encounter the Minister again – this time as a Fellow of Trinity and Lord Butler as the Master.

While teaching at Cornell Dr Ferrari applied for and was appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Engineering at Cambridge in 1965, and the following year a Trinity Fellowship. He not only taught and supervised students but was also a University Proctor during the student unrest of the late 1960s.

At Cambridge, with then graduate student Eric Munro, Dr Ferrari set about applying the Finite Element Method to electromagnetics, leading to a year in Montreal working with Professor Peter Silvester of McGill University, during which he wrote the textbook, An Introduction to Electromagnetic Fields. They would later co-author Finite Element for Electrical Engineers, which was translated into several languages.

With a liking for the countryside engendered during war-time evacuation to Derbyshire, Dr Ferrari had hiked in the Austrian Alps and jumped at the opportunity to join Trinity colleagues to investigate the depth of the Vatnajokull glacial ice sheet in Iceland in 1976 and again in 1977.

Alongside his research, Dr Ferrari continued his passion for chamber music. He had learnt the violin at primary school and while working at GEC had studied the viola part-time at the Guildhall School of Music. It was at GEC that Dr Ferrari met his life partner, Judy, who sang a lead role in the company’s music society performance of Handel’s ‘Acis and Galatea.’

‘Ron was an accomplished violin and viola player. He regularly played with University and Trinity groups, where the performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet became well attended annual event,’ recalled Professor Migliorato.

Professor Hunt said: For many years Ron and I sang together in The New Cambridge Singers, it was really nice to share an interest outside of the College.’

In 1994 Dr Ferrari was awarded the Cambridge ScD in recognition of his published works.

Dr Ferrari is survived by three of his children, Diana, Richard and Suzie.

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