Saturday, 21 June 2014

Benzene is flat

Benzene was discovered by Michael Faraday; one of his many achievements in physico-chemical science. He'd been born into a family of the respectable poor and finished a rudimentary formal education at the age of 14 to be apprenticed to a bookbinder.  He spent at least as much time reading the books as binding them and so won himself a patchy education. His story is for another time. As is the much related example of the creative spark of insight whereby August KekulĂ© realised that benzene must be circular in structure after he dozed off and dreamed of whirling snakes seizing their own tails. We treat here rather of Kathleen Lonsdale who proved that KekulĂ©'s ring structure was planar/flat rather than crinkled or undulating.

Kathleen Yardley was born in 1903, just up the road from The Institute where I work, in Newbridge Co Kildare.  She was the youngest daughter of ten children of a retired soldier who was the local postmaster. It was pretty rough: Kathleen never grew tall and four of her brothers died as children. His wife eventually got fed up with his boozing and shifted herself and the children to Woodford in Essex when Kathleen was 5 years old. She won a scholarship at the end of elementary school and so was able to continue her education rather than going off to work like her older siblings. Like Jocelyn Bell Burnell after her, she wasn't able to do science at her all girl's secondary school but her mother got her into the local boy's school instead.  She was smart and won another scholarship to enroll in Bedford College of the University of London very young at the age of 16.  She worked hard but turned her stature into an asset by coxing the college rowing eight and also sang in the choir. She knocked off her BSc degree at 19 getting the highest marks in physics in 1922, indeed it was the highest mark that U. London had recorded for ten years.

This extraordinary achievement got the attention of local professor William "Nobel1915" Bragg and he gave her a job as a research assistant. Billy Bragg has a great song (HD vevo celeb version) about gender role reversal; clearly his namesake wasn't afraid of the concept 100 years ago.  Then again maybe it was a case of Caitlin Moran's idea that, if you want the most creative people, you can't exclude half the candidates because they don't have a penis.
Yardley got better support from her boss than Jocelyn Bell Burnell but support of the best possible sort for a truly creative and hard-working person. She said of Bragg 'He inspired me with his own love of pure science and with his enthusiastic spirit of enquiry and at the same time left me entirely free to follow my own line of research'.  After a few years, Kathleen Yardley married another supportive man: an engineer called Thomas Lonsdale. They agreed to follow his career rather than hers and so shipped up-country to Leeds for his work. He stoutly maintained that he didn't get married to secure the services of a housekeeper and she sat at the kitchen table doing fearsome mathematical calculations (most of us couldn't do a Fourier transform with a computer let alone with only a pencil, paper and log-tables) while he washed the dishes baked all the family's bread (like me!)and tricked about with homemade physics  and engineering apparatus. It's probably not a coincidence that the Lonsdales were Quakers. While in Leeds, she got a corner of lab in the Chemistry Department and did the ground-breaking work on the structure of benzene and published a single author paper in Proc.Roy.Soc A in 1929, when she was 26.

After a while the Lonsdales moved back to London and had two more children.  Bragg must have perked up when he heard that his star worker was back in town because he secured a chunk of money from Robert Mond, chair of the Brunner-Mond chemical company, and allocated that to sorting out some home help for the young couple so that Kathleen could get back to the bench. She stayed with Bragg at the Royal Institution for the next fifteen years and made enormous contributions, practical and theoretical, to X-ray crystallography. This secured her her DSc degree and in 1945 she was one of the first two women to be elected to the Royal Society.  In 1949 she was given the chair of crystallography at University College London becoming that institutions first tenured female professor. At the end of her career she became the first woman to chair the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Another accolade of more concrete nature was to have a form of meteoric diamond named after her. She was flattered "It makes me feel both proud and rather humble that it shall be called lonsdaleite. Certainly the name seems appropriate since the mineral only occurs in very small quantities (perhaps rare would be too flattering) and is generally rather mixed up!".

She was invited to speak at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in 1943 attending a Summer School with Eamon deValera, Erwin Schrodinger, Max Born and others. She wasn't always doing science, because she spent a month doing time.  In 1943, she followed her Quaker principles by refusing to register for Civil Defense work in WWII and refusing to pay a fine in lieu.  So she had the edifying experience of scrubbing floors in Holloway. This woke her up to the grim reality of what happens in prisons and she followed Elizabeth Fry into work of prison visiting and prison reform  . . . and the politics of peace . . . as well as the day job! . . . and bringing up three children!

It's not surprising that she was an inspiration to women in science but she worked at that too: 'Never refuse an opportunity to speak in schools'.  Dorothy "Nobel" Hodgkin was unhelpfully told that she was mad to get married and try for children after her long exposure to x-rays, but drew solace from the fact that her colleague Kathleen had had higher exposure and three normal children. KL was relentlessly positive about the child-job juggle "My own research life has been greatly enriched by having been broken into by periods of enforced change. I was not idle while I had my three children; far from it. But it gave me the opportunity of standing back, as it were, and looking at my work. And I came back with new ideas." but she was under no illusions that it was hard graft: "For a woman, and especially a married woman with children, to become a first class scientist she must first of all choose, or have chosen, the right husband. He must recognize her problems and be willing to share them. If he is really domesticated, so much the better. Then she must be a good organiser and be pretty ruthless in keeping to her schedule, no matter if the heavens fall. She must be able to do with very little sleep, because her working week will be at least twice as long as the average trades unionist's. She must go against all her early training and not care if she is regarded as a little peculiar. She must be willing to accept additional responsibility, even if she feels that she has more than enough. But above all, she must learn to concentrate in any available moment and not require ideal conditions in which to do so."

She died, only 68, of cancer, maybe the x-rays got to her after all.  Bonnets Off!

1 comment:

  1. For a brief but puzzled moment I thought the blob had gone all world cup, leading as the french did last night with a striker called Benzema! Phew