Book reviews

Personal X-ray Reflections an Autobiography by Uli Arndt

ISBN-10:184416943, 2006, 200 pp, Athena Press Pub. Co.

[Personal X-ray Reflections cover] Uli Arndt was born in Berlin in 1924. His parents emigrated from Nazi Germany to England in 1936 where he received a “privileged education”. He lived a rich full life, made many significant contributions to crystallography and collaborated and consorted with many of the leading crystallographers of the past 90 years. In his eightieth year he lost his wife Valerie with whom he had shared his interests, concerns and ideas for 47 years. In an attempt to fill the void created by her death he taught himself the use of dictation software and dictated his autobiography. It is a wonderful story rich with his perspectives on the history of his times and the growth of the field of crystallography. It is filled with humerous and delightful anecdotes. He tells us that in the 1930’s “schoolwork was sometimes used as a method of detecting any anti-Nazi attitudes of parents. We were once required to write an essay on what my parents talk about after I have gone to bed”.

His education in England is described against a background of world events, local weather conditions and cultural activities. In order “to fill time” he enrolled at Birmingham University for a year “joined numerous clubs, learned to drink beer and smoke a pipe and went to weekly dances at the student union”. He describes his time at Emmanuel College, Cambridge as including eccentric and philandering professors, and local young ladies of unsavory reputation. He participated in a Debating Society that tackled such issues as “men are clay and women make mugs of them”.[Uli Arndt]

His first job was as a research fellow in the Birmingham U. Dept. of Metallurgy constructing a “proper” X-ray powder spectrometer for the investigation of metal structures. This was part of his thesis which he defended with Bill Astbury from Leeds on his thesis committee. He tells us that he never actually applied for a job because he was lucky enough to be offered a new job whenever he needed one. The field of crystallography benefited tremendously from his pioneering work in designing X-ray and neutron sources, detecting devices and ultimately synchrotron facilities. Early in his career he worked in the Davey Faraday Lab in the basement of Royal Inst. in Albemarle Street, London. With a Geiger counter he discovered a highly radioactive area five feet in diameter in the lab floor that was the result of a collaboration between Sir James Dewar and Marie Curie twenty years earlier.

We learn of the famous labs he worked in, books he read and the operas he attended (running into Hans Freeman on two continents). He tells us of Jack Dunitz intentionally giving incorrect directions to tourists in Holland if he didn’t like their accent, and of his having to share a double bed with an elderly stranger in a bed and breakfast while on holiday in Scandinavia. He offers candid opinions of the various countries he visited for sabbaticals, meetings, collaborations, and holidays. At Brooklyn Poly in 1957 he ran into Francis Crick and John Kendrew. He describes a “stormy” meeting of the Apparatus Commission of the IUCr in 1958 with an unnamed American chairman at “daggers drawn” with both the German and French delegates. Arndt tried to resolve the conflict since he was the only member who spoke all three languages.

In 1962 Max Perutz invited him to join the newly formed Medical Research Council (MRC) lab of Molecular Biology. He describes his participation with John Kendrew in the early days of not only the MRC but of the European Molecular Biology Lab and Inst. Laue Langevin in Grenoble. He tells of attending an ACA meeting at the U. of Virginia to deliver an after dinner speech as a “stand in” for Nobel Laureate Bill Lipscomb, and of a round the world trip to give invited lectures in Japan, Australia, and South Africa. He continued to work and travel in retirement and met an unnamed “real live astronaut” in Huntsville, AL, USA.

The penultimate chapter of the authobiography is a review of the books he had read over the course of his life. He contrasts the blood chilling German children’s literature (presumably intended to offer life lessons) to the gentler books (ie Winnie the Pooh) that he read from each night to his three daughters. The German children’s stories included “Shock-headed Peter” who had his fingers cut off because he would not stop biting his nails (clearly illustrated with blood dripping from the stumps) and Max and Moritz, little German rascals who were ground up and fed to the chickens by a farmer in retaliation for their pranks. Max and Moritz were the role models for Hans and Fritz in the US comic strip ‘The Katzenjammer Kids’.

Uli has written a warm, wonderful, entertaining and educational story of his life, the world in which he lived, the scientific field he played a critical role in advancing and the people he met and with whom he worked and played. I recommend this book as a good read for anyone, but especially crystallographers who will find familiar names and perhaps a number of people that they have met personally in the course of their lives. I also hope that the book will inspire other crystallographers to make good use of their retirement years to record their life stories and further enrich our crystallographic heritage with their Personal X-ray Reflections.

William L. Duax