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Guest editorial - John R Helliwell

[Helliwell] Image: J. R. Helliwell 'holding infinity in the palm of his hand' (William Blake)

Interviewed by the U. of Manchester magazine recently for a personal profile article, in the end entitled 'John’s Journey', I responded to the question 'Why did I decide to concentrate on science at age 16?' with the reply 'For no good reason, but I do recall having had excellent science teachers at my school'. On reading this in the cold light of day of the printed copy I felt slightly shocked ie where was the flash of insight and passionate call to science. Fortunately, as well as ‘…no good reason…’, I did mention my vivid memory of using the prism spectrometer in the school physics lab; the awe inspiring moment when you see for the first time the discrete emission lines from a sodium vapour lamp…that it is indeed not a continuum emission of light….that the periodic table of the elements, indeed all of chemistry and life itself, rests on the electronic discrete energy level structure of the atom seen through that eyepiece. But clearly my recollection was that my teachers were the most important factor in inspiring me into science. I had, in that interview, re-realised the importance of being a good teacher. Within this theme of re-inspiration something else important happened for me recently. Whilst I was amidst tortuous budget wrangles and seemingly endless centrally imposed audits, I found myself listening to a cassette tape of Sir Aaron Klug’s Rosalind Franklin Lecture given in 1999 at The Royal Society. In fact I have listened to this tape several times over. Sir Aaron’s lecture truly gripped me with its clear and lucid exposition of Rosalind Franklin’s work. I felt inspired, actually my point in this Guest Editorial is that I felt re-inspired, by hearing afresh the details of Rosalind Franklin’s work. The truly beautiful work of the physical chemist turned diffractionist achieving the careful humidity controlled isolation of the diffraction patterns from distinct A and B form DNA structures; 'humidity-resolved' structural intermediates. Of course DNA is very much on our minds this year with the 50th Anniversary celebration of the double helix structure model from the X-ray fibre diffraction work by the 'networked' research groups of Cambridge and Kings' College London. The magic of those three papers in Nature in 1953 from the teams of researchers involved, along with the breakthrough helical diffraction theory paper published in 1952 in Acta Crystallographica, changed the face of science in so many fields. Today, fifty years on, as crystallographers and diffractionists, we have the privilege to live daily the beauty and importance of, in Sir Lawrence Bragg's words, 'seeing atoms'. Currently for me this means the understanding of the intricacies of the colouration mechanism of the lobster carapace, neutron protein crystallography studies, and also my Lab's starting structural studies of our protein targets within the global project on Mycobacterium tuberculosis led by Los Alamos and U. of California, Los Angeles, USA as well as helping with the bringing on-line of the new MPW-MAD10 beamline at Daresbury SRS.