A friend I hadn’t heard from a long time recently contacted me to let me know that a mutual friend of ours, a lecturer I had met when I was student in Manchester, was quite seriously ill. Whilst I was on holiday with Marie-Laure, surrounded by the glittering Ionian seas, I heard that he had died. George and his wife Margaret were two of the most important people in my life in the decade or so after I left Ireland, before I discovered really where I was supposed to be going. At the time, I viewed them as almost a second set of parents. The last I heard from George was in 2012, when he told me the rather shocking news that Margaret had died of cancer a few years previously. George, in telling me this, was as rational and dispassionate and ever I had known him to be. During his illness, I heard that he viewed his own approaching death without fear, which did not surprise me. I don’t think, in his own unselfish manner, he would have wanted us to overdramatise things. However, I found myself on the beautiful Vriki beach on Antipaxos reflecting on George and Margaret and realised that now both my sets of parents are gone, and that my only link with them is what I remember. These are the words I wrote for him.
When I was in Manchester, from 1988 to 1991, George was my Particle Physics lecturer. (Later on Margaret. his wife, was my careers officer). I was immediately drawn to George by his wit, knowledge, intellectual clarity and honesty. I had arrived in Manchester from the wilds of rural N. Ireland and although I had read a lot of books, they were not the right books, and I was a bit lost. It was fun to talk with George about all kinds of topics many of which I soon realised that I had preconceived ideas without even knowing it! I remember in particular one long discussion we had about the origins of consciousness: George was convinced it was all just the product of complexity and chemicals in the brain: I realised for the first time that I had never thought about it that way before and that perhaps he could be right.
I was deeply impressed by his unsentimental rational attitude. I was always curious, but talking to George I slowly began to realise that there could almost be no limits to where rational inquiry could go. After I finished my degree, I travelled a lot and during that time I always felt George and Margaret’s house in Manchester was a place I could visit and stay at when I wanted to. Looking back now, I see that George (together with my Uncle John) are probably the two people who most shaped my view of the world. It was very helpful in combatting everything which a Catholic boys’ grammar school can do to you.
During my travels, George and Margaret offered to look after all the books I had accumulated during my time in Manchester. I spent almost every weekend in Manchester going to second-hand bookshops and had bought many books. Although, George and Margaret assured me, the best thing to do with all these books would be to simply give them away, as they did (every time visited there house I was always impressed as how uncluttered it was). When I left the UK for good in 1998 this was precisely what I did myself, and it was exactly as liberating as George assured me that it would be.
I started work as staff astronomer at the IAP in 2003. A year or so after I arrived in Paris, George came to visit me. Modestly, he slept on the couch in the tiny apartment I was living in at the time. We visited the city and ate a nice meal together at the Coupole. This visit, sadly, would be the last time I would see him. When I heard that he was ill, my first thought was to go down towards the Seine and have my picture taken on the Rue Descartes and send it to him. I wanted to say to him: George, you put me here on this street, you helped me get here. Alas, it was already too late. George showed me the value of that kind of thinking and both he and Margaret had such an unselfish attitude to life and how to behave to others which I still find inspiring today.