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Reminiscences from ECM-22

Budapest, Hungary, August 25-31, 2004

[M. Jaskolski] Mariusz Jaskolski
The 22nd meeting of the European Crystallographic Assn, ECM-22, attracted nearly 700 people in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. It was a memorable meeting. The charm of Budapest, accentuated by the bridges on the majestic Danube River, the hills, and the impressive architecture, will live in the memories of the participants, as will the smooth organization of the conference. This we owe to A. Kálmán, Chair of the Organizing Committee, and to his young adjutants, L. Fábián and P. Bombicz. Special thanks are due to Petra who, as the Secretary, took quiet and efficient responsibility of almost everything. The months leading to ECM-22 had been very busy, but the work was well organized, a source of satisfaction for those involved. Everything was handled electronically, even the deliberations of the Bursary Committee. Thanks to generous help from the IUCr and the ECA, nearly 100 young scientists were awarded financial support. And youth was surely visible in all the activities of the meeting. This is a good prognostic for the future of our discipline in Europe. A sad point is, that over 20 of the awardees did not show up or withdrew at the last minute.

The meeting's home was the new Convention Centre and the Chemistry Dept. of the Eötvös Loránd U. There were some small inconveniences (such as overflowing seminar rooms and poor audio facilities in the main hall) but they are already forgotten, suppressed by the overwhelmingly positive impressions. The participants and exhibitors were particularly happy with the central location of the exhibition area. It became the favorite place for chatting with friends and for scientific discussions. People were crowding at the booths with instruments and supplies but also, I'm glad to note, around the two book stands. The printed word seems to be doing fine in the era of electronic information.

The scientific program covered virtually all aspects of crystallography and a spectrum of interdisciplinary subjects, from materials sciences to molecular biology. There were 42 microsymposia and 16 plenary lectures. A quick look at the keynotes shows topics covering new phasing and statistical methods, new materials, data mining and molecular recognition, biological membranes and virus structure, extreme and special techniques, and even robotics and escience! Perhaps the spectacularly dynamic field of macromolecular crystallography was somewhat underrepresented, but this view may be biased by my personal interests.

In retrospect, I have the most vivid memories from the opening ceremony. It was then that the ECA presented for the first time the Max Perutz Prize. It went to George Sheldrick, an Englishman working in Germany. The ECA has already awarded a number of prestigious Prizes (Ada Yonath 2000, Jochen Schneider, 2001, Carmelo Giacovazzo, 2003), but Max Perutz became their patron only this year, on the initiative of the Executive Committee. Max Perutz, who passed away two years ago, was one of the giants of European crystallography. An Austrian working in England, Perutz pioneered an entirely new area in crystallography. It is, therefore, very befitting to honor the most creative European crystallographers with a diploma bearing the name of Max Perutz. The title on the diploma handed to George Sheldrick by Hartmut Fuess, President of the ECA, and Anders Liljas, Chair of the Prize Committee, reads: 'for seminal contributions to the development of direct methods and for converting the theory into straightforward procedures for solving small and large crystal structures'.

In his address following the presentation ceremony, George remarked that he had overlapped with Max Perutz for 18 years at Cambridge without ever having any direct contact! George was then in inorganic chemistry at the University Chemical Lab, and Max Perutz was in the Medical Research Council. George offered three interesting thoughts. (1) Crystallography is a truly interdisciplinary science. While this is quite obvious, the corollary is that rigid administrative constraints should not impede migration of crystallographers to new areas. George is the best example of what benefits such migrations bring: started in inorganic chemistry, went to crystallographic methodology and organic crystal chemistry, to finally make very important contribution to protein crystallography. (2) Crystallographers should talk to each other; for example, small molecule crystallography can learn a lot about model bias from macromolecular crystallography, and macromolecular crystallographers do not have to re-discover things that are only too familiar in the small molecule field (for instance C-H and π hydrogen bonds). (3) Openness and sharing is more beneficial to everybody than not sharing. He illustrated this with computer programming practices. In the early days, open code was the only way to distribute programs. Today, the situation has changed. But is it for the better?

With a note of pride, Hartmut Fuess emphasized that European crystallographers, as a community and as individuals, have definitely contributed to the integration of the Old Continent and perhaps even to the enlargement of the European Union. From the conception of the ECM's, the idea has been to bring the East and West together, to avert isolation. In this sense, the fact that the first ECM after May 1, 2004, was held in Budapest, one of the new capitals of the enlarged European Union, is symbolic in itself. It must be noted here that the geography professed by crystallographers is different than in popular atlases. For example, Israel has been a member of our community 'since always', and the continent of Africa is in fact part of crystallographic Europe. The previous ECM was held in Durban, on the southern hemisphere! But despite all the integrative efforts, there are still white patches even on the map of Old Europe. To overcome this, the Executive Committee is extending invitations to join the ECA to all those countries where there is at least some crystallographic activity. In this spirit, we had, as observers, colleagues from Belarus and Moldova.

When Bill Duax, President of the IUCr, took the podium during the opening ceremony, he unfolded an even more global view. In a unique way, crystallography has formed a clear international community, and has contributed to understanding and contacts between people all over the world. This fantastic role of uniting people around common intellectual ideas may have far-reaching effects; perhaps it can contribute to fighting terrorism in a better way than many political actions.

Alajos Kalman, with typical Hungarian hospitality, presented the guests of honor with souvenirs at the opening session. 'Bill Duax will not be present at the closing ceremony', he said. Bill, who is known as a strong advocate of full conference participation, responded quickly and firmly, explaining that, under very exceptional circumstances, he had to leave on the eve of the last day.

In Budapest, I was accompanied by my son Maciej (17). To my despair, his interests are far from scientific, but I took him to the opening ceremony, to one of the scientific sessions, and to the closing ceremony on the Danube cruise. And he was very impressed. Not by the scientific content, but by the atmosphere and the general family-like feeling. He thought that everybody knew everybody in Budapest. And we were quite a crowd!

Mariusz Jaskolski, ECA Vice President