A life in Science


Andrew D. Booth

former President of Lakehead University, Ontario, Canada; 
Timberlane, 5317 Sooke Rd, Sooke, British Columbia, V9Z 0E8, Canada  
Reprinted from CNCC Newsletter No 1 (Canadian National Committee for Crystallography) September 2009


A few words of introduction. I am the last surviving member of the group of X-ray crystallographers who worked in the Chemistry department at Birmingham University in the early 1940's. The Chairman was Sir. Norman Haworth who won the Nobel Prize for his determination of the molecular structure of Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C). X-Ray crystallographic work was under the direction of Dr. E. Gordon Cox (later Sir Gordon) lecturer in Physical Chemistry. 


I had studied medicine and theoretical physics at London and done an engineering "graduate training" course at my father's aero engine shadow factory in Coventry. This was followed by several short-term, war-time jobs. These included one to set up an X-Ray inspection laboratory at the Armstrong Siddley Aero engine works in Coventry. I did not find Industry very interesting and applied for an advertised Graduate Scholarship awarded by the British Rubber Producers Research Association (BRPRA) to work at Birmingham university on Rubber structure. My father was of course livid because accepting the Scholarship involved a reduction in income by a factor of six. The Wartime scientific assignment board had to be consulted and agreed with the additional constraints that I had to be OC [Officer Commanding] Air Navigation at the Birmingham ATC [Air Training Corps] training centre several evenings per week.


By the time I arrived at the lab. The Government had re-assigned the X-ray group to work on explosives. In my case Penterythritol Tetranitrate (PETN) C-(CH2 ONO2 )4 and a substance named RDX. I met with Dr. Cox for about an hour and was given a stack of paper. This included some of Cox's own work and Bernal's classic "Chart" paper. I was told "find 26 errors in this"! Next Cox led me to the actual X-ray lab. He located a large and filthy wooden box and said "This contains an X-Ray tube, get it going". I did not see him again for 18 months as he had moved to an administrative post at the Ministry of Supply. 


The staff in charge of the unit were now Dr. Frank Llewellyn and Dr. George Claringbull. My immediate contact was Dr. George Jeffrey whom most crystallographers will still remember. I soon assembled the contents of the wooden box. It was indeed a home-made X-Ray system but a previous student had contaminated it with mercury. The whole thing was assembled using APESO wax. I was told later that the unfortunate man responsible was kicked out. I was now introduced to the Phillips, sealed, tube unit which was the one actually used. 


Next there were training sessions on space group determination using such simple crystals as Oxalic acid, easy structures such as NaCl and eventually a gathering of data for PETN. Once the diffraction films were made and analysed, the next operation was the determination of Absolute intensities using the Lindeman electrometer, a most revolting and temperamental device.  


Finally the data were taken to the calculating room where, with the aid of models, one attempted to see how best the proposed structure could be fitted into the unit cell. This was a frustrating process for which one used Patterson syntheses and Beevers and Lipson strips along with Brunsviga and Facit hand calculators. Although we had a female assistant to do some of the routine work I soon became frustrated and devised some mechanical aids. Fortunately I was able to get these made at the BRPRA workshop. The work now went more smoothly and the structure was soon finished. I was now diverted to other problems such as isotope separation and other wartime needs. 


Before leaving the subject of our group two remarks may be of interest. First youthful desires; each morning Llewellyn and I used to take the same electric tram from central Birmingham to the University. There was a particularly beautiful lake on the approach drive with a fine display of daffodils in springtime. As we passed the lake we would exchange philosophical thoughts. Llewellyn expressed an eternal love for Science and a determination to make it his life work. It is interesting to find that his first move was to a Chair in Chemistry in New Zealand and then to head the NZ Broadcasting Commission. This was followed by a move back to the U.K., Directorship of the British Council, and a Knighthood. Claringbull too soon left crystallography to become Sir George and Director of the Geological Museum in London. 


The second observation is the behaviour of Professor Haworth. Each evening at 5p.m. he would wander round the labs and ask each research student "What have you achieved today?" Next morning, soon after 9a.m. he repeated the process with "What have you achieved since I last saw you?" I have found this a most useful technique. 


With my Ph.D. in hand my scholarship ended and I moved to the BRPRA laboratories near to London. The Director, Mr. J.W. Wilson, proved to be one of the best people for whom I have worked. My interests were in improving the understanding of the X-ray analytical process and in improving the computational techniques. Wilson gave me a completely free hand and I worked 12 hour days and also acted as Air Raid Warden and Fire Watcher. Meals were taken at the nearby "British Restaurant" which provided good and inexpensive food. 


I designed and put into construction a large, mechanical, structure factor calculator and also a relay Fourier synthesiser. On the theoretical side I started on the development of error and accuracy analyses for the results of current X-ray analyses. The resulting papers from this work soon attracted some attention and I was offered a Nuffield Fellowship and Lectureship in Physics at Birkbeck College London, under the leadership of Desmond Bernal. At that time Bernal had no College space for his new "Bio-molecular" laboratory so his initial team was housed in the Davy-Faraday laboratories at the Royal Institution (RI). As my practical program was proceeding at BRPRA I spent most of my daytime in the splendid library of the RI writing my book "Fourier Technique in X-Ray organic Structure Analysis" (Cambridge University Press, 1948) where references and details of most things mentioned above can be found. I also taught Optics and Theoretical Physics at the old Birkbeck building in Bream Street.  


Following a visit to the U.S.A. in 1946, to attend the 1st ASXRED conference at Lake George, I visited most of the computing facilities and, on return to England, terminated the work on the mechanical Fourier machine at BRPRA and started on an all electronic version. Meanwhile I had been awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship which I used to work with von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. While there I designed two, general- purpose, computers, the ARC and APEXC. The former was an all-parallel binary machine on the von Neumann plan to form a test bed for memory development, the second my own architecture and serial operation for X ray calculations. Meanwhile I was testing various forms of magnetic memory. 


On return to England my two assistants, Kathleen Britten and Xenia Sweeting soon constructed the ARC and I had an operational magnetic drum memory (now in the Science Museum, South Kensington). Bernal now had his new laboratory building and his new Bio-molecular lab was opened with myself as assistant Director for Computing. 


Over the next few years the APEXC design was given to International Computers Ltd. in exchange for generous financial support for my laboratory which became the foundation of the World's first Department of Computer Science in 1953. It is still in existence. 


My 17 years of work had resulted in the generation of some decent methods for calculating atomic coordinates from Fourier syntheses together with methods to assess their accuracy. The computer work had generated a series of methods that it was hoped would, at least partially, automate the whole process for small molecules. Quite apart from this, I had initiated the whole field of computer aided language translation as well as the use of computers for the chronological dating of ancient and other texts. On the experimental side research was in progress on ferro-electric materials and on thin film magnetics.  


I had made several attempts to get the University to create a permanent Chair in Computer Science and even obtained a guarantee of funds from Industrial friends to support it. It was rejected on the grounds that "It is too soon to see if computer science will have a long term existence"! It must be said however that this may have been due to the malice of another academic at another University. I learned of this much later along with evidence of his complete dishonesty.  


In 1962 I decided to leave the Socialist mediocracy that Britain had become. When I let this be known I had some immediate offers, one from Western Reserve University, Cleveland, and another from the University of Saskatchewan. Western Reserve offered an "Interdisciplinary Professorship in Autonetics" a title which the then Chancellor, Jack Millis, constructed from Greek roots as "Doing what you like". Saskatchewan however wanted someone who would modernize the College of Engineering and get it involved in research. I thought this very interesting and eventually accepted the Chair of Electrical Engineering with the expectation of succeeding the then Dean of the Faculty when he retired in 1963. I kept the Cleveland offer on hold and accepted it in 1963 as a "professor at large".  


The University of Saskatchewan was founded in 1909. The College of Engineering consisted of Departments of: Agricultural, Civil, Mechanical, Chemical and Geological Engineering. The first year enrollment was about 1000, mostly male. None of the departmental Chairmen had Doctoral degrees and there was practically no research. 


In my first year I started a number of projects including the design and construction of a fully transistorized version of the APEXC. With excellent financial assistance from the Canadian National Research Council and the Defence Board this machine was completed within the year. By now I had discovered that no University in the Prairie Provinces had any interest in X-Ray structure analysis so that, apart from some small investigations which I used as tests, the machine was used for bio-medical and other data acquisition. I am happy to say that the machine operated without maintenance or error for over a decade. 


I introduced student participation in College government long before the riots of the 1960's. Thus, when the troubles started, the Engineers were a steadying influence on Campus revolt. I also introduced structural changes: A Division of Hydrology and a Division of Bio-medical Engineering, the latter arising from my early medical training. One result was that Doctors of Medicine (MD's) could obtain an Engineering degree in 3 years and Engineers an MD in the same period. It is interesting to note that, in my time, several Engineers obtained the MD, while no MD completed the course. My own contributions were the first demonstration of cell damage due to microwaves, hyperbaric oxygen in wound treatment, laser eye surgery and open-heart surgery. By the time I left Saskatoon in 1972 I had a reasonably qualified staff and a graduate school enrollment of about 300. This was the fourth largest in Canada. On the side our work on Movable Type (MT) had continued under the supervision of Dr. Kathleen Booth and our system had been demonstrated to the Queen's Printer. 


I should have been happy to stay at Saskatchewan until my retirement but out of the blue came the offer of the Presidency of Lakehead University in Ontario. This was a new University with splendid buildings. Unfortunately the first President had resigned in the face of student protest. My mandate here was to stabilize the faculty and students, to introduce research and, as I had not been told before I accepted the post, to balance the budget. I managed to do most of these things before I retired in 1978. The exception was research, at no time were there funds to make the necessary new appointments.  


In the very limited spare time I had available I had kept in touch with the area of small computers so, when a curious little device called the KIM became available, I acquired one. Visitors were amused to see the machine set up on a side table in my office. I also got one of the first TI60 programmable pocket calculators with associated printer unit. I spent a happy Sunday afternoon programming it to calculate and print all of the F(h,k,l) values for PETN from the coordinates in our original paper. It was about 10 times faster than the months of work in the 1940's. 


On retirement, in 1978, we moved to British Columbia. Here we set up a small Company and, with a grant from the National Research Council, designed and produced an energy control device and software to economise on electrical domestic power use. We showed that our interface, used on the PET computer and tested over a 12 month period, could reduce the power bill by 30%. We had hoped to market this but had no sales acumen and failed. Although we disposed of a number of units to various University and Government departments as an interface from computers to the real world. 


I also used the PET to automate a Fourier refinement of the original PETN coordinates. The program was written in BASIC and the results cleared up several anomalies that we had detected in the original work. It also agreed with previous work at UBC. I became an honorary scientist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences at Patricia Bay, Sidney, B.C. and designed a Correlation Sonar to be used to determine sub-surface Ocean currents. This was successfully constructed at IOS and has produced useful results. Other projects include computer recognition of marine animal sounds and the computer translation of ancient maps to modern format. Our main activity, however, has been a study of waves in the Ocean and particularly the transport of atmospheric CO2 to the water for absorption. This has led to a number of interesting sidelines although the work has now ceased because of lack of Government support for the Institute. 


Other contributions are in the fields of photometric evaluation of coal deposits and the design and insertion of Corneal Implants. Finally I designed and implemented a course for Engineering students entitled "Economics and Business management for engineers". This was given for a number of years at the University of Victoria and resulted in a small book of the same name. The emphasis was on Computer Modelling and, among other things, one of the exercises for students was to design and use an extended version of the J.W. Forrester Club of Rome model. The interesting outcome is that disaster looms by 2025 even without Global Warming.  


I am still very interested in mathematical crystallography and often return to several problems from my early days: Uniqueness of the solution in the absence of phase information and the general problem of phase determination.