Return from Space
1997 – aboard the Mir
I first met the subject of X-ray diffraction of crystals in the pages of the book W.H. Bragg wrote for school children in 1925, ‘Concerning the Nature of Things’. In this he wrote: “Broadly speaking, the discovery of X-rays has increased the keenness of our vision over ten thousand times and we can now ‘see’ the individual atoms and molecules.” I also first learnt at the same time about biochemistry which provided me with the molecules it seemed most desirable to ‘see’. At Oxford, seriously studying chemistry, with Robinson and Hinshelwood among my professors, I became captivated by the edifices chemists had raised through experiment and imagination — but still I had a lurking question. Would it not be better if one could really ‘see’ whether molecules as complicated as the sterols, or strychnine were just as experiment suggested? The process of ‘seeing’ with X-rays was clearly more difficult to apply to such systems than my early reading of Bragg had suggested; it was with some hesitation that I began my first piece of research work with H.M. Powell on thallium dialkyl halides, substances remote from, yet curiously connected with, my later subjects for research.