In Memoriam - Professor John J. Simpson

Posted on Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

Professor John J. Simpson FRSC, a highly distinguished member of the Physics department from 1969 to 2002, passed away in the Netherlands on August 23rd 2016. John was born in North Bay, Ontario in 1939. He leaves his wife Marianne, his son James and daughter Sarah and their families, and his sister Donna and her family.

Prof. Simpson earned BASc (Engineering Physics) and MA (Physics) degrees at the University of Toronto. He then won the prestigious Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Overseas Scholarship to study for a D Phil at Merton College of Oxford University. Subsequently he spent periods as a post-doctoral fellow at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and again at U. of T. before taking up his position at Guelph.

After starting his career in nuclear structure physics, John moved to the physics of the elusive elementary particles known as neutrinos, drawing international attention for experiments performed both in his laboratory and deep in a salt mine near Windsor, Ontario. He received the Rutherford Medal for Physics of the Royal Society of Canada in 1985 and was elected a Fellow in 1987. He then became, along with H. Chen, G. T. Ewan, A. B. MacDonald and others, one of the founders of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. This unique laboratory deep underground in the Creighton Mine aimed to solve the problem of why the measured flux of neutrinos from our sun was only one third of what was expected on the basis of solar models. The overall SNO team expanded to over 100 Canadian and international scientists. The Guelph component of five members was led by John, who was an influential figure in the collaboration. SNO eventually succeeded in proving that neutrinos did in fact have mass and oscillated between different physical states, bringing conclusion to the “missing solar neutrinos” puzzle. SNO’s achievement was recognized by the award of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics to director Prof. Arthur MacDonald of Queen’s University, and by the award of the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics to each of its members.

Towards the end of his career John employed the equipment developed for his fundamental physics work to the dating of ancient fossils and stalagmites from Africa and the Middle East. This led him into an Australian collaboration which dated one of the earliest Australian human fossils, with results which revolutionized the history of humans in Australia.

John was much more than an inspiring colleague and a hugely creative scientist. He was a devoted family man, a voracious reader of literature, a lover of music and especially of opera, a talented chef, a connoisseur of food and wine, a traveller, and a raconteur par excellence. His departmental colleagues and especially his friends at that centre of debate known as the Physics lunch table, have missed him since his departure upon retirement to the Netherlands and they share in the grief of the Simpson – Van der Veen family.

The University of Guelph Physics Department will host a celebration of John Simpson at the University’s Arboretum Centre on 6 May 2017. In order to help us plan the event we would appreciate knowing if you expect to attend. Please contact one of: Iain Campbell at; Gabriel Karl at; Marion Steele at

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