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Scientists of Wales: John Beynon

(September 01, 2013)


Scientists of Wales: Professor John H. Beynon, F.R.S.

 John Beynon

Progress in science is achieved in a variety of ways, with different timescales usually depending on commercial and political needs. For instance, the botanical sciences have a long timescale because an essential skill is observation of natural forms and their development. The founding father was Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) who devised a system of biological nomenclature of grouping plants and animals. Before his time the observational records of botanists were somewhat haphazard. After Linnaeus the record improved dramatically but the progress has not been publicly dramatic. However, much change occurred out of the public eye in agriculture and horticulture. Who knows what might happen in the near future, when society comes to realize how the riches of nature can be exploited to feed the burgeoning population of the world and to maintain good health standards.

By contrast with the record of botanical science, that of other branches of biological science, especially medicine, has shown extremely rapid change over the last 100 years, even though the application of this new knowledge has not been uniform over the world. Consider, for instance, the case of plastic surgery, which arose and developed in the two world wars of the twentieth century. A similar story applies in physics and chemistry and their associated technologies and in different forms of engineering. In these cases the agents of progress have often been military, political or commercial. The disciplines of aeronautics and space exploration have owed much to the imperatives of political and commercial competition.

In all of these instances progress has depended upon painstaking, even laborious, pursuit of tried and tested experimental techniques, with continual improvements. Progress could only happen when sufficient, reliable data became available upon which theories could be postulated as to whether or not the data revealed some pattern of behaviour.

Notwithstanding the reality of experience that hard work underlies sound development, it is also the case that, from time to time, advances are achieved in the form of a newness of basic ideas, some from a totally unexpected observation. This shift might be described by some as revelation and by others as a piece of luck. This was the case in the career of John Beynon.

John Henry Beynon was born on 23 December 1923 in Ystalyfera, 12 miles northeast of Swansea. His primary education, mostly in Welsh, was received at Ysgol-y-Wern. He excelled in arithmetic, to the point that, when he left for secondary school at the remarkably young age of nine, he assisted his teacher by marking the work of other pupils.

His secondary education at Ystalyfera County (Grammar) School was conventionally in English, despite the bilingual nature of the district. Among the new delights that he savoured was the new language of Latin. He was immediately successful at it, perhaps because the strict rules of grammar appealed to his innate ‘scientific’ inclination. Be that as it may, he might have become a classicist, had it not been that did not get on with his Latin teacher in senior forms. Consequently, he turned to the sciences in the sixth form (post-16 nowadays). Such are the causes of career choices!

He was persuaded to follow a broad set of courses (physics, chemistry, pure and applied mathematics) at Advanced Level (then the Higher School Certificate). After achieving success at this level he went to University College, Swansea where he graduated with First Class Honours in physics, having dropped chemistry on the way. On reflection it is remarkable that in his subsequent career he held four chemistry professorships in the UK and USA, but not one in physics.

War service was undertaken in the Royal Tank Regiment after which he became an employee of the giant Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in Manchester. The company researched and sold a host of chemical products such as dyes, polymers and waterproofing agents. He was one of a handful of physicists in a crowd of chemists. It was in this environment that he acquired much more knowledge and understanding of the fundamental chemistry of substances and also, but as important, honed the skills of teamwork.

Isotopic patern of a peptide, recorded by a Q-TOF mass spectrometer. Author: Maciej Kotliński

Isotopic pattern of a peptide, recorded by a Q-TOF mass spectrometer. Author: Maciej Kotliński

Where was the 'lucky break' in his career? In a letter to this writer, he recalls an experience in 1970 while working in the USA, "… we were working on the fragmentation of fast-moving positively charged ions by passing them through a collision region containing gas at low pressure. The products were analysed by passing them through an electric sector with a variable voltage across the plates. One day, a new research student connected … the plates … with reversed polarity. He got a spectrum … but it was the strangest spectrum we had seen … When we discovered his mistake … we could just have had a good laugh and gone back to normal operation. Instead, we set out to explain the spectrum and discovered that we had found a new class of reaction … This led to the development of a complete new range of spectroscopies … that have many applications … "

Thus, while a lucky break is crucial, but perhaps not appreciated as such at the time, what matters for progress to be achieved is that (again in Beynon's words), " … If you see something that you didn’t expect, or can't explain, stop and try really hard to understand what has happened. This philosophy has led me time and time again to new discoveries".

The words spectroscopy and spectrometry have the same stem as spectrum which is a presentation of features in some order of type or magnitude or other characteristic. The most prominent and common instance is a rainbow with its colours, each colour representing light waves of different wavelengths. This visible phenomenon is but a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum which includes radio waves and X-rays, all separated by different wavelengths and, consequently, used for different purposes. Mass spectrometry is of a similar kind, but with mass, not wavelength, as the distinguishing characteristic. So, if a substance is composed of different ingredients of different elemental masses, the process enables them to be separately identified and their amounts specified. This is an extremely powerful tool for current types of analysis, for instance, determination of drug abuse.

John Beynon’s distinguished work in mass spectrometry, mostly during a long career with ICI, was internationally recognised in 1971 when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1974 he was awarded a Royal Society Research Fellowship to be located at a university of his choosing; he chose his alma mater – the university at Swansea. Here he continued his research for 12 years, leading a powerful team until his retirement, and established the basis upon which has been developed by today an international centre of excellence devoted to mass spectrometry. There cannot surely be a more fitting and visible manifestation of what can happen when a lucky break is exploited by diligent endeavour.

I am grateful to Professor Gareth Brenton for information relevant to this article. Professor Brenton, who works at the Institute of Mass Spectrometry at Swansea University, worked with John Beynon over many years.

Neville Evans, 1 September 2013

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

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