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Knight toasts ‘Sir’ in glory

Tejinder Virdee

London, June 16: To Sir with love: in his moment of triumph, when it was announced on Saturday that professor Tejinder Virdee had been honoured with a knighthood “for services to science” in the Queen’s birthday honours list, he did not forget the schoolteacher who gave him his passion for physics.

Born into a Sikh family in the foothills of the mountains of Nyeri in Kenya on October 13, 1952, Virdee was 15 when he came to England with his parents and siblings in 1967 and was taught physics by a teacher called Howard Stockley at King’s Norton Boys’ Grammar School in Birmingham.

Stockley was especially demanding when it came to Virdee. “Certain teachers have a gift of empathising with students, helping them out — and giving them wings to fly,” recalled Virdee. “I understood why he was so demanding — he expected a lot of me.”

The citation from Buckingham Palace set out why Stockley’s student is today Sir Tejinder Virdee: “Professor Virdee is one of the UK’s most distinguished physicists and, as one of the creators of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Experiment he has made outstanding contributions to science. The CMS experiment, at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), CERN, Geneva, has delivered seminal results in particle physics, including, and along with the ATLAS experiment, the groundbreaking discovery of the Higgs Boson. Beyond his innovative work in particle physics, he is also a great campaigner for science, and promoter of science and education in Africa and India.”

In 2012, Virdee and his wife Vatsala went to Birmingham to meet Stockley, who was then 80. It turned out to be a final goodbye, for Stockley was injured in a fall a few weeks later and died in hospital. It was an emotional meeting between guru and shishya. Virdee was touched to discover his old teacher had followed his progress from afar over the years. As Virdee left, Stockley bid him a tearful farewell.

On Saturday, Virdee and his wife were spending the weekend in France with friends in a picturesque village in Provence.

“I cannot believe it!” exclaimed Lady Virdee as she will now be called. “So excited! We are so delighted, we are so happy! And it is such a shock. Actually we are in the south of France in the most beautiful village in Provence — something we had planned before we got this amazing news. We have got olive groves, beautiful trees and lavender and just about to go to the seaside and going swimming — a great way to spend our day.”

She passed the phone to her husband for whom the knighthood had been a “complete surprise”.

He revealed that in memory of “Sir”, he had been in touch with the headmaster at his old school in Birmingham.

“It is funny but I have been trying to set up a prize under his name at the school and it is only last week that I talked to the headmaster — I had sent him some messages earlier — and he replied. And so there will be a 100 prize for the best student in physics at that school at the end of A levels named after Howard Stockley — the Howard Stockley Prize.”

Virdee added: “My father would have also been very proud but he passed away a few years ago. Of course, my mum’s very happy.”

As for his work, there is much to be done in Geneva.

He is chairman of a review panel that is examining the data from when a Higgs Boson particle was found two years. “We are finishing the analysis and going to publish the final results.”

The LHC is also being geared up to do a new round of experiments next year. All this will be in pursuit of what Virdee calls “the new physics”. An attempt will be made to resolve the unified field theory first mooted but not completed by Albert Einstein.

He emphasised scientists had found “a Higgs Boson” and not necessarily “the Higgs Boson” since there were five.

“I am also working on innovative technology for replacement of one part of the detector which will improve its capability,” said Virdee. “We are looking 10 years ahead to 2025 so the aim is to maintain CMS as one of the most powerful instruments ever built.”

The Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie was among other notable people to be honoured. She was made a Dame but it is an honorary title and cannot be used before her name as she is a US national.

Jolie was recognised for her campaign against the systematic use of rape as a weapon of terror in war. Jolie, a special envoy of the UN high commissioner for refugees, was in London last week to co-chair a global summit, End Sexual Violence in Conflict (ESVC), with William Hague, the British foreign secretary.

Commenting on the honour, Jolie said: “To receive an honour related to foreign policy means a great deal to me, as it is what I wish to dedicate my working life to. Working on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and with survivors of rape is an honour in itself. I know that succeeding in our goals will take a lifetime, and I am dedicated to it for all of mine.”

Jolie won worldwide admiration last year when she disclosed she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy because she carried the “faulty” gene BRCA1, which sharply increased her risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Her partner Brad Pitt described her decision as “absolutely heroic”.