Feature article

Crystallography of historical note: R.W. James on ice

In 1914, four days after the First World War began, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 seamen and scientists set sail from England for Antarctica on the 144 foot wooden ship Endurance. They would not be heard from again for nearly two years. Just one day before they reached Antarctica, temperatures plummeted and the ship was entrapped in pack ice. Frozen fast for 10 months, the Endurance was slowly crushed by the pressure of the ice. The crew was forced to abandon ship with three small lifeboats and limited supplies onto an ice floe. What followed were 22 grueling months of camping on different ice floes until they opened sufficiently to use the boats and reach Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five others crossed some of the roughest seas in the world (Drake’s Passage) in an open lifeboat to South Georgia Island and there traversed uncharted mountains before finding help. The most astonishing feat of all was that everyone survived. This harrowing story is now retold in the striking feature length documentary, 'The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition'. Produced by George Butler and author Caroline Alexander, the film resurrects astonishing Antarctic panoramas, the doomed ship, and the extreme hardships and miraculous climax of one of the greatest man-against-nature sagas to emerge in the 20th century.

We would like to point out that the renowned X-ray crystallographer Reginald William James (R.W. James of 'The Crystalline State, Vol. II, The Optical Principles of the Diffraction of X-rays') was a member of the Shackleton Antarctic Expedition. His duties as physicist were to study magnetism. In view of the documentary and the rumor that Hollywood is to make a movie of the epic, we thought today’s crystallographers would appreciate knowing about James as they may view one or both of these films.

At Cambridge, James read physics, chemistry and geology for Part I and obtained a 1st Class in 1911 and physics for Part II. James was a classmate of W.L. Bragg in C.T.R. Wilson’s Part II lab; both received 1st Class in their finals. They both attended lectures by Sir J.J. Thomson with whom James started research in 1912 and worked with until 1914. Although James received an appointment at Liverpool University after 5 years at Cambridge, a friend told him about Shackleton’s Expedition. James said he might be interested and soon received a telegram from Shackleton. His interview with the latter lasted 5-10 minutes concluding with a 'very well, I’ll take you.'

The Expedition was rescued in August, 1916 and James reached England that November. His diaries of the Expedition are now housed at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University. After the war, James joined the Physics Department at Manchester University from 1919-1937 and then went on to Capetown, South Africa. He made a world-wide reputation for himself in his collaborations with W.L. Bragg, C.H. Bosanquet, C.G. Darwin and I. Waller. He measured the absolute reflecting power of rock-salt crystals for X-rays (between reflected rays and the incident X-ray beam). Another classical piece of work by James was the investigation of the intensity of reflections by rock-salt over a large temperature range with D.R. Hartree and Ivar Waller, which established the existence of zero-point energy in the lattice. One of R.W. James’ most distinguished students is Sir Aaron Klug, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for his development of crystallographic electron microscopy and the structures of nucleic acid-protein complexes.

Alexander, C., The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1999).
Bragg, W.L., Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 11, The Royal Society, London (1965) 115-125.
Lansing, A., Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, (1999).
Shackleton, E., South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914-1917, (1999).

A. Tulinsky