John Scales Avery

Both of my parents were born in the United States, in the state of Michigan, and both of them studied at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My father studied medicine, while my mother studied bacteriology (in those days an unusual vocation for a woman). After graduation, they did research together at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. My father later did more research in a borderline area between physics and medicine with Arthur Holly Compton (discoverer of the "Compton effect") at the University of Chicago. His fellowship at Chicago came from the Rockefeller Foundation.

In 1926, my father's friends in the Rockefeller Foundation persuaded him to take a position as professor of anatomy at the American University of Beirut, a university whose potentials the foundation was trying to develop. In those days, Beirut was very isolated, and it took my parents two weeks to reach it by ship.

My father stayed at the AUB until the start of World War II, and for this reason I was born in Beirut, Lebanon. The state of Lebanon had been created in the aftermath of World War I. It was a fragment of the Imperial Ottoman Empire, which had been carved to pieces by the victors. On my birth certificate, under the signature of the attending doctor, was the information that he had been licensed by the Ottoman Empire. Many of my parents' friends in Beirut had known T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and General Allenby. Also Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband were frequent guests at the university as they passed through on their way to Egypt via the Orient Express.

Beirut is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is built on the Bay of Saint George (where the saint is supposed to have killed the dragon) and in the background are high snow-covered mountains. One can swim in the morning and ski in the afternoon. In those days the American University of Beirut was a place where talented students from all over the Middle East received the best possible modern education. One of my father's students was Charles Malik, who became the first Secretary General of the United Nations. Another student at the AUB, Fadal Jamali, later became Prime Minister of Iraq, only to be assassinated. I should add that during the time we were in Beirut, Americans were extremely popular, and we have wonderful memories of the kindness and hospitality of the Lebanese.

Lebanon was a French Protectorate, and when France began to fall during World War II; it became clear that German forces would soon arrive in Beirut. The Americans who were on the staff of the university were advised to leave and to find temporary employment in a safer place during the war. Thus we returned to the United States, and during the first part of the war my father served as Dean of Medicine at Boston University. However, in 1943 he was asked to go to Iran to serve as Director of Public Health for the Allied occupation forces. Between 1945 and 1950 he remained in Teheran as advisor to the Iranian Ministry of Health. My mother, my brother and I joined him in there in 1945.

I vividly remember our journey to Iran in 1945. My mother had a long list of items that she was supposed to buy and to bring with her. These included a top hat (for visits to the Shah) and a kerosene-burning refrigerator. The war with Japan was still going on, and these things were difficult to find. We sailed on the Swedish hospital ship "Gripsholm". It was the first voyage that the ship had made with dependents. When we reached the port of Pyrias in Greece, the devastation was appalling. Also the people of the port were starving, and when our ship dumped garbage into the harbour, people came out in small boats to pick it up. Garbage was better than no food at all.

When we arrived in Haifa, it was planned that we should proceed to Baghdad on an air-conditioned bus, but the reservations were gone (someone had been bribed). Finally my mother was able to find a place on an ancient, overcrowded bus that drove straight across the desert with two others, three abreast to minimize the dust one inhaled. There was no road. In Baghdad all of us became violently ill, but no matter. We had to leave the next morning to drive across the remaining part of the desert on something called the Levant Express, which was in fact just a car, with my mother, brother and myself as the only passengers.

In Teheran I attended a wonderful English-speaking school run by the Presbyterian Missionaries. The other students were mainly children of the diplomatic community, with a sprinkling of sons and daughters from wealthy Iranian and Iraqi families and a few Russian refugees. For some reason, these students were enormously kind. We had 26 nationalities and 9 religions in the school, but the harmony was perfect, and the spirit was one of love and friendship. However, the mission school had no chemistry laboratory. This worried my mother, and she sent away for chemicals. When these arrived, she gave my brother and me a private course in qualitative analysis. I think that few mothers would have done this, but my mother believed very strongly in the value of science.

When my brother and I finished all the grades that the mission school had to offer, we were sent to a boarding school in Massachusetts. Later I studied physics at MIT. The choice of physics as a vocation for me was made for me by my parents - or at any rate this choice was strongly encouraged by them. My father had always been extremely talented in physics, and he wondered what he would have been able to do in that field had he chosen it instead of medicine. My mission was to answer this question. (I would have preferred to study philosophy, but my father was paying the bills, so I did as he wished).

Later I studied theoretical physics at the University of Chicago, and obtained an MSc there in 1955. When I arrived at Chicago, I was scheduled to have a course in classical mechanics taught by Enrico Fermi. However, Fermi became seriously ill with cancer, and the course was instead taught by Maria Goepfert Mayer (who later became very famous for her shell model of atomic nuclei). She was a pleasant, red-haired, stoop-shouldered lady, who smoked while she lectured. She sometimes absent-mindedly mixed up the chalk and the cigarette, trying to write with the one that she should have been smoking, or visa-versa. I remember asking her if there existed a systematic method for making a contact transformation to cyclic coordinates. "No", she answered, "you have to feel it."

The course in mathematical methods at Chicago was taught by the famous astrophysicist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, who drove down from Yerkes observatory once a week to give the course. He was a handsome and elegant man with an Oxford accent, who loved Bessel functions and who insisted on absolute discipline and attention in his class. Chandrasekhar was a master of classical mathematical analysis, which he had applied to such abstruse problems as radiative transfer in stellar interiors, magnetohydrodynamics, and the theory of black holes. One day a number of other physics students and I invited him for dinner. On that occasion he tried to convert as many of us as possible to astrophysics. His argument was that extreme conditions exist in the universe, for example the extremely high temperatures and densities within stars, and these conditions would be impossible to duplicate in the laboratory. Therefore one has a chance to discover new physical effects and laws by means of astronomy. Two of my classmates were converted by his arguments, and they became astrophysicists.

During my time as a student at MIT and the University of Chicago, I had a summer job in the High Voltage Laboratory of the National Bureau of Standards in Washington. Part of the time I worked at calibrating standard high voltage transformers - a tricky job because of the many thousands of volts available to run through the body of anyone who made a careless move. Also I helped to make lightning flashes with a Van de Graff generator, to improve the design and lightning-resistance of high-voltage insulators on power lines. Towards the end of my career at the NBS, my employers found out that I was a theoretician. I was moved to the radiation physics division, where they asked me to make a relativistic calculation of the angular distribution of deceleration radiation (Bremsstrahlung). When my results agreed perfectly with experiment it gave me much self-confidence - too much in fact, because during the next few years most of my troubles came from trying to solve problems that were too difficult for the low level of knowledge and technique that I had reached.

In 1957, my advisor at the University of Chicago went to Cambridge University in England on a Gugenheim Fellowshop, and he took me with him. Thus I had the privilege of spending 1957-1958 as a research student at the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. One of the unforgettable experiences of that year was attending the quantum theory course of Prof. P.A.M. Dirac. As a young man, Professor Dirac had won a Nobel Prize for his relativistic wave equation, and he was certainly the greatest theoretical physicist that Britain produced during the 20th century. Dirac was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, that is to say, he held the same chair at Cambridge that Newton and Babbage had held in previous centuries, a chair now held by Hawking. When he gave his course (which closely followed his famous book) he seemed most of the time to be discussing pure mathematics, and it was only very seldom that he applied it to physical problems. This highly abstract viewpoint appealed enormously to me. My admiration for Dirac's scientific style was boundless.

Professor Dirac and his wife (who was the sister of another famous mathematical physicist, Eugene Wigner) lived in a large, slightly unkempt house called Ivy Lodge. My lodgings in Cambridge were near to it, and often on my way to the Cavendish I would see Dirac cycling to work, wearing a black academic gown that streamed out behind him, looking like Mr. Chips. At the start of his course, Dirac circulated a paper in the classroom on which we were asked to write our names. I thought nothing about it, but partway through the term I received an invitation to have tea at Ivy Lodge. It turned out that the tea was for four of his other students and myself. Dirac, who was an extremely silent person, sat by the fire and seemed to enjoy the conversation, although he said almost nothing. Meanwhile his warm-hearted wife made sure that we had enough cakes to eat, and she asked us about all the details of our lives. Since I idolized Dirac, it was a great experience for me.

To my great joy, I was invited to Dirac's house a second time. This time, I was the only student present, the other guests being John Ziman and Rudolph Peierls, two professors of physics, both of whom has written books about the quantum theory of solids. Rubbing shoulders with these eminent scientists went a little to my head, I am ashamed to say.

We also had tea at the Cavendish Laboratory every day. Dirac usually sat by himself and said nothing. He was in a world by himself - a completely mathematical world - and he had no small talk. However, there was another famous figure usually present who was more interactive. This was Francis Crick. We all knew that he and Watson had solved the structure of DNA, and we all knew that it was only a matter of time before they would receive a Nobel Prize for that work. However Crick was extremely modest. One day he asked me whether I thought that large quasi-periodic biological molecules could have a band structure analogous to the electron band structure of crystals. He listened carefully to my reply, which greatly impressed me. I thought it the mark of a great scientist to listen carefully to someone so far beneath him in rank.

Shortly afterwards, my work at the National Bureau of Standards had an unexpected result that completely changed the course of my career. There was a Hungarian physicist at the Bureau called Zoltan Bay. He had previously been a professor of physics in Budapest, and during World War II he had worked in the anti-Nazi underground with the famous biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi. Zoltan Bay now offered me a chance to work at Szent-Györgyi's Institute for Muscle Research in Woods Hole Massachusetts.

After receiving a Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for isolating vitamin C, Albert Szent-Györgyi had become one of the main founders of a new branch of biochemistry - bioenergetics. He had also become convinced that quantum theory was needed for a complete understanding of biochemistry (and of course bioenergetics). Therefore at the age of 64, Szent-Györgyi spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton learning quantum theory as well as he could. He did indeed learn very much, but he realized that he would need collaborators who were especially trained in quantum mechanics. Thus he was interested in recruiting theoretical physicists as co-workers. He asked Zoltan Bay for advice, and Dr. Bay recommended me. It was too good an offer to refuse, and I spent two summers working at Woods Hole.

Like Dirac, Szent-Györgyi was unquestionably a great genius, but the scientific styles of the two men were completely different. Szent-Györgyi's powerful intuition invariably led him to the core of any problem, and he approached the core-problem using ideas that were as simple as possible without oversimplification. While he was still in Hungary, he discovered the citric acid cycle. Later Sir Hans Krebs clarified the details of this very central biochemical process, which plays a role in the synthesis of energy-storing substances. It is usually called the "Krebs cycle", but in Hungary it is called the "Szent-Györgyi cycle".

Building on his early discovery, Szent-Györgyi asked the central question of bioenergetics: "Why is the available energy not dissipated as heat? How is it coupled to the biochemical machinery". To make this question understandable, Szent-Györgyi used the analogy of the burning of fuel. If we pour gasoline onto the ground and set fire to it, the available energy is uselessly wasted as heat. On the other hand, if we burn the gasoline inside an engine, the energy can be converted to useful work. Szent-Györgyi searched for tiny energy-transducing engines within the body. One of the first that he found was the ATP-mediated reaction between the proteins actin and myosin, the reaction responsible for muscle contraction.

When I arrived at the Institute for Muscle Research in Woods Hole, I found that Szent-Györgyi wanted Dr. Bay and me to work on the precise mechanisms of the primary process in photosynthesis. We succeeded in obtaining some exciting results that were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1961.

The work with Albert Szent-Györgyi made me realize that there are a number of important and relatively simple problems that have remained unsolved because they are on the borderline between two or more disciplines. People are generally trained in one of the disciplines needed, but not both, and therefore there is considerable opportunity waiting for researchers who can master several branches of science simultaneously.

Having developed a taste for interdisciplinary problems, I studied theoretical chemistry at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, a division of the University of London, and received a Ph.D. there in 1965. I continued at Imperial College as a lecturer until 1973, and while there I gave a course in quantum chemistry for which I wrote a set of notes. One day, a representative from McGraw-Hill contacted me and said, "I hear that you have written a set of notes that are very popular. Would you like to develop them into a book?" Had he not made this proposal, I would never have thought of attempting such a thing, but of course I accepted his suggestion. In writing the book, I used the historical method as much as possible, including biographical details wherever I could. Perhaps for that reason the resulting book ("The Quantum Theory of Atoms, Molecules and Photons") was very popular. The English edition had a large circulation, and in China a pirated edition was produced. Later a Spanish translation had an even larger circulation.

Because of my work with Albert Szent-Györgyi, Plenum Press approached me and asked whether I would be willing to start a new, interdisciplinary journal to be called "The Journal of Bioenergetics". I did this, and served as Managing Editor of the journal between 1969 and 1980. The name of the journal was later changed to "The Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes". Sadly it was not as interdisciplinary as I had hoped it would be. Most of the authors were biochemists, and there were only a few physical chemists contributing - notably D.D. Eley, R.J.P. Williams, Peter Mitchell and J.C. Skou. However I am proud to say that the journal recognized the extreme importance of Peter Mitchell's work at a time when he was having difficulty in getting articles published in other journals. He later won a Nobel Prize for his chemiosmotic hypothesis, which we published. J.C. Skou also later won a Nobel Prize for his studies of the mechanisms of active transport of ions across membranes.

While I was editing the journal, there was a postal strike in England, and for several weeks neither manuscripts nor letters concerning manuscripts could go in or out. This meant that authors who might have sent their papers to us, sent them elsewhere. The postal strike was a terrible blow, and it was necessary to do something drastic to get the journal started again. My solution was to solicit articles for a special issue of the journal, which would appear in book form. The title was "Membrane Structure and Mechanisms of Biological Energy Transduction". It was such an enormous success, that it had to be reprinted, and it brought the journal back on its feet again.

In 1973 (for family reasons) I moved to the H.C. Ørsted Institute at the University of Copenhagen. I was sad to leave London, where I had many wonderful friends, but it turned out that Copenhagen was also a marvellous place to work. When I arrived in Copenhagen, I found that the concentration of quantum theorists in Denmark is very high, perhaps because so many young students are inspired to follow in the footsteps of Niels Bohr.

I have continued to work on interdisciplinary problems, but in recent years they have been borderline problems between pure mathematics and quantum theory. This work has been made exciting and joyful by several wonderful collaborations. The first of these was with Professor Zhen.-Yi Wen, who came from China to work with me for two years. Before he arrived, I knew that he was an expert on the theory of the unitary group, and I was wondering what problem I could find for us to work on together. My students and I had just developed some tensor methods for performing complicated angular integrals. When we finished that work, I realized that with only slight modification, our methods could also be applied to spaces of arbitrarily high dimension, that is to say the methods could be used for performing hyperangular integrations. I decided to work with Professor Wen on the theory of hyperspherical harmonics, using our new hyperangular integration methods. It turned out to be a really beautiful field, and I am still working on the applications of hyperspherical harmonics in quantum theory.

This interest in spaces of high dimension led me to another wonderful collaboration. For several years I had the privilege of working with Professor Dudley Hirschbach of Harvard University, a great scientist and a great human being. Professor Hirschbach was also interested in spaces of high dimension, but he approached them from a slightly different viewpoint - dimensional scaling. After hearing him lecture in Florida, I realized that he might be interested in the progress that I had made with hyperspherical harmonics, and I sent him chapters of a book that I was writing on the subject. The result was an invitation to visit his laboratory at Harvard, the first of several visits that I have been privileged to make.

The third collaboration that has made research in recent years such a joy has been with my son, James, who is studying Computer Science and Mathematics at the University of Copenhagen. James and I have now published six articles together, and we are working on a book entitled "Generalized Sturmians and Atomic Spectra", which will be published by World Scientific in 2006. As can be imagined, it is an enormous joy to work with one's son on such a project. James and I complement each other very well, each supplying background that the other lacks.

I would like to end by saying a few words about work in the peace movement. During my student days at Chicago I worked for the World Association of World Federalists as membership chairman for the Chicago area. In London I joined the Aldermaston marches and was a member of the British Association for Social Responsibility in Science.

Later, after I had moved to Denmark, I helped to organize a two-week summer school called "Towards a Non-Violent Society" at the International College in Elsinore. One of the other people who helped to organize this summer school persuaded me to enter an essay contest sponsored by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. The essay should propose ways of developing a sense of social responsibility in science students. I wrote that a course on the social impact of science ought to be part of everyone's education, and in particular it ought to be part of the education of science students. This essay did not win the contest, but it was translated into Danish and published in one of the major Copenhagen newspapers. Our students at the University of Copenhagen saw this newspaper article and they said to me "Well, if you really believe that there should be such a course, you will have to make one."

In this way, our "Science and Society" course started, and it has been given every year since 1989. The book that I wrote for the course is on the website of the Danish Peace Academy ( The President of the University of Copenhagen, Ove Nathan, was very much interested in the course, and he used to send me encouraging notes at a time when I was meeting opposition from other parts of the faculty. One day I had a telephone call from Ove Nathan in which he asked me to be the Contact Person for Denmark for the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs ( ( . They had asked him to do it, but his duties as president of the university were too heavy. Because he knew of my interest in global problems related to science, Ove Nathan thought of me. I have now been to most of the Pugwash Conferences since 1990, and enjoy working with our local Danish Pugwash Group.

Another unexpected chance to do something for peace came when I was contacted by the World Health Organization and given the job of completing a large annotated bibliography that they had started to make on "Health Effects of War and the Threat of War". During his period as Director General of WHO, Halfdan Mahler pointed to war as the world's major health problem, and in consequence he commissioned the bibliography. The European Office of WHO had made a start, but they were bogged down in political problems, and hence asked me for help. When the bibliography was completed, WHO gave me another job: They asked me to participate in planning meetings for setting the goals of WHO for the European Region. In particular, my job was to try to predict the way that science and technology would develop during the coming decades. This was exciting and fascinating work, and my association with WHO lasted a number of years.

I still continue to work very hard in the peace movement, partly with Pugwash Conferences and partly with the Danish Peace Academy. I love scientific work, but when doing research, I feel a bit like the Emperor Nero, who is said to have played the violin while Rome burned. I feel that we are living at a time of crisis for civilization, and that everyone should give a high priority to the great task of abolishing war.