Roger Stephens

Some Personal Reflections

By Roger Stephens

There was a remarkable air of enthusiasm and self-confidence about the department in 1971. Doug Ryan had recently established the Trace Analysis Research Centre, TARC, and was guiding it towards international recognition. Not too long afterwards Bill Jones became Chair and set about ensuring that strong growth would not be confined to TARC alone. Both these men pursued their visions of the future forcefully, even ruthlessly, and among the results were new appointments, new research programs, and an atmosphere of purpose and vitality and optimism. At the same time serious problems caused by inadequate facilities were at least blunted by a tremendous sense of collegiality. I felt privileged indeed to be invited to join such company, and the feeling still remains vivid even after 30-plus years.

An appointment to TARC was a piece of singular good fortune in several ways, not the least of which was the experience of working there with Doug Ryan as director. Doug's achievements are well known of course and they need no embellishment here. Suffice it to say that he was someone whose counsel I valued and who I came to hold in lasting regard.

An appointment to TARC was advantageous as well in a practical sense in that money was available to equip lab space. The space in question comprised a small area in the basement of a house on University Avenue and featured lots of concrete and a massive lead door by virtue of a previous incarnation as home to a radiation source. For some reason or other Doug seemed to feel that potentially explosive equipment in the hands of an untried junior was best isolated in an underground bunker safely away from the rest of the world. The basement also featured a sump pump which unfortunately became disconnected in an absent-minded moment during a search for extra electrical power. The resulting flood reached a depth of about three feet and provoked some admirably talented sarcasm from Physical Plant. After a year or two TARC moved into the Life Sciences building which was a great improvement, no sump pumps to worry about, though the lead door was rather a loss; it had been a most useful source of electrode material.

TARC by now was attracting an increasing number of visitors, one of whom was Jouko Kankare on sabbatical from the University of Turku in Finland. His arrival began a long association which led to some highly entertaining episodes, such as the chance to drive a steam train full of Finns and thereby satisfy all sorts of juvenile ambitions. Or rather the driving the train bit did, the nationality of the passengers was never that much of an issue. In any event, opening up the throttle of a steam locomotive proved to be one of life's experiences. The association with Turku was professionally fruitful as well and was generously supported for many years by NSERC and by the Finnish Academy of Sciences.

In 1981 I was temporarily attached to the UN for work in Beijing; an honour which owed much to the international reputation which TARC had attained and to the standing which that reputation lent to Dalhousie as a world class centre for the study of analytical chemistry. China then was just beginning to open up to the West and the contrast between the two cultures was an interesting one. Perhaps the digression in the next paragraphs can manage to convey some sense of this.

Imagine for instance the airport in Shanghai at the time — no English, spoken or on computer terminals or on signs or anywhere else, the place packed like a rush hour subway station only more so, and myself feeling somewhat conspicuous as the only Westerner in sight and the object of close and suspicious scrutiny by Red Guards. That Shanghai hadn't appeared on my flight schedule and I wasn't supposed to be there in the first place was also rather a puzzle, but maybe not untypical of other misunderstandings which were to occur. Somehow everything managed to sort itself out eventually.

At first sight Beijing by night seemed an archetypal communist bastion, grey and forbidding under mercury arc lights. This impression changed next morning when exotic buildings emerged from the mist and curious tiled roofs glowed under a truly spectacular sunrise, optical effects courtesy of the atmospheric pollution from a nearby steel mill. Not too long after this magnificent dawn came the time to present an opening lecture, which turned out to be an alarmingly formal affair in very grand surroundings. Things seemed to go well enough though until the lectern collapsed, loudly, necessitating a pause in the proceedings while the dust settled and an awkward pile of bricks was removed. Presumably the thing was not subject to a lot of use or inspection. Anyway, this episode served as a fine way to relieve tension, shades of Hoffman at the Oxford Union and so forth, but my hosts unfortunately seemed to be quite mortified and possibly not in the mood to appreciate a request for sick leave.

Westerners were still a great novelty in Beijing and walking down any street invariably produced a barrage of interested stares, also a widespread clearing of mucous membranes though that probably had more to do with the acrid air. Indeed so universal was the hawking and spitting that at first it seemed as if the entire populace was in the grip of some sort of horrid epidemic, a galloping outbreak of the sickness mongo as it were. Dickensianisms about great expectorations aside, days soon settled into a routine, starting with a 6:30 a.m. jog down West Chingan Avenue to Tiananmen Square, running among buses and carts to avoid the teeming sidewalks and bicycle lanes and causing interested stares to turn to gaping incredulity. No private cars to worry about fortunately. Breakfast after all this exercise was enlivened by usually futile attempts to obtain more than a single cup of coffee. One what might be called red letter day was marked by the successful kidnapping of an entire coffee pot, but sadly this achievement was not to be repeated: thereafter all coffee pots were ostentatiously guarded in my presence.

The technical world also operated under different rules. To quote verbatim from notes made at the time:- " ... they have decided to build the Faraday system. Problem — permission to use the workshop had to be obtained from their Ministry, who would ask another Ministry to pass down the request that the workshop co-operate — all because the shop was in a different area of control. Incredibly clumsy. ... these people ... are capable of building anything they want ... it seems only a matter of time before they develop an independent capability which will be impressive by anyone's standards. The Japanese had better watch out ...". Different rules or not, the people in the lab were highly competent and thoroughly professional as well as being the most kind and courteous hosts. They took extraordinary pains not only to make me feel part of their design team but also to show off as much as they possibly could of their society, their culture, and their history. The experience left a feeling of profound gratitude towards those who went to enormous lengths to bridge a cultural abyss and who made me welcome.

Upon returning from China I filed a report with the UN, bid a fond farewell to the diplomatic passport they had given me and to the high life that went with it, and settled back into normality. An engaging memory that comes to mind from this period is of a contest one evening with Stan Cameron to see who could feed the most cheese to the President's dog, winner to be decided when the beast was sick. In the event we had to declare the contest a draw after the animal displayed a gargantuan appetite which easily defeated the pair of us. Shortly after this regrettable display of canine gluttony came an interlude in Washington, to give evidence in a squabble between Perkin-Elmer and Varian, which was more lucrative but less fun.

Another move into different lab space took place around 1982, this time to an area in the chemistry attic which had been condemned as a teaching lab. The place had its problems but it did offer badly needed floor and bench space. And it was quite nice finally to be located in the chemistry building. In fact, space was a severe problem for most people at that time, but a major step to resolving the issue eventually came with the construction of new teaching labs in the podium. This project was made possible by a large donation from the Windsor Foundation; a story was extant, and the source was a reliable one, that upper echelons of the university administration were most reluctant to see the money go to chemistry and only yielded in the face of Walter Aue's dogged persistence, backed by a threat from the donor to withdraw the money altogether if it was not used in short order for its designated purpose. In due course the podium was completed, allowing the old teaching labs in the chemistry building eventually to be turned into new research space. The transformation began quite dramatically.

The unexpected sound of .22 cartridges exploding outside my office produced a sort of convulsive shifting of mental gears, back to Imperial College and a fellow graduate student who kept a .22 bolt action target rifle at hand to deal with the pigeons which infested the place. His efforts were halted eventually when higher authority intervened with a stern edict prohibiting the use of firearms within the building. (Those who might regard such behaviour as unusual should rest assured that Imperial at that time was home to some unusual people; there were odder things going on than the activities of a marksman with a dislike for pigeons. But all of that is another story.) Returning to the present and dismissing these ancient memories, along with the awful thought that maybe the first year had suddenly risen, a swift investigation revealed the source of the current fusillade to be a stalwart work crew wielding ramset guns. Their presence heralded of the start of renovations which were to continue for the next two years and which caused great problems for everybody.

The chairs of the building committee, Chuck Warren and Robert Guy, bore the brunt of many of these problems, Chuck during the construction of the podium and early planning for the old building and Robert during the later renovations. The physical structure which is available to the department today cost both of them endless hours in its making, not to mention having to cope with a great deal of concentrated agro. Despite all the best efforts of the building committee however nobody in the department could escape the disruption which was an obvious and inevitable consequence of gutting and then re-constructing a building while it was still being occupied. Even the students suffered, as when lectures ran to the accompaniment of the drilling rig which installed the hydraulics for the new elevator, shaking the entire building in the process and burying the lawn in drilling mud. Unfortunately the system was picky about any angular deviation of the shaft and the first couple of holes had to be filled in and the effort repeated. Even the jackhammers which had gone before were preferable, if barely. It was funny though, every time one thought things couldn't get worse they went and proved you wrong. People got by in any way they could during these times, though how services like the NMR and X-ray Centres did so remains a mystery known only those who ran them.

My own operation was halted by the unscheduled collapse of part of a wall during the demolition of an old chimney. Falling debris did some damage; brick dust did more, knocking out optical and mechanical systems. However it had been clear within a year of moving in that the lab was running on borrowed time, no illusions about the need to be prepared to make an end, and closing down was not complicated. Two years later almost to the day I resumed work in a new lab, but could summon up no interest in trying to rebuild the high profile research program of earlier years. It was thoroughly refreshing to shift focus from the fundable to the interesting; research became fun again, and remained so for the duration.

This account would be incomplete without some mention of the personnel who have and who continue to run the office, the stockroom, and the shops. Quite simply the department today would be infinitely poorer without them, and here I do not refer to technical skills alone.

Back in 1971 the office ran under the direction of a Mrs. Pritchard, a formidable lady who had been trained by the British army to forget whatever she was typing as soon as it had been typed. Apparently the brainwashing or whatever it was had not been reversed after the war, so Mrs. P. could guarantee to handle the most sensitive material without fear of any accidental indiscretion. This convenient amnesia did not extend to the various sins committed by junior faculty which she recalled with great ease and even greater enjoyment. Ernie Kenny in the electronics shop was a patient tutor who educated me in the rudiments of how to build circuits that worked and who left me greatly in his debt. Ernie was a fascinating character who had had a widely varied career and could come up with some remarkable stories. He had, among other things, served as a technical assistant to a bomb disposal squad during the Second World War, had analysed the workings of captured German radio equipment in the same era, and had subsequently wound up as part of the design team for the TSR2 (a would-be low level RAF attack aircraft). Then there was Ron Young, a diving enthusiast, who insisted on bringing his gear to a lobster party on Cleveland beach. Even though he contributed no more than a few flatfish to the occasion the combination of cooking lobsters and an active diver produced a most unexpected response in the form of a prompt raid by the Fisheries Officer for the area. Apparently the bush telegraph had sprung into action and some local lobstermen had not been overly amused by what they took to have been a case of blatant poaching. There were characters as well among the students and post docs who passed through my lab. On one memorable occasion a mixture of acetylene and nitrous oxide exploded, producing a sufficiently impressive bang to empty nearby offices. Enquiries about the nature of the mishap elicited a placid glance in the general direction of the wreckage followed by the information that "it went pop". Ms. Lau was not a girl who rattled easily.

Finally, and on a different subject. In common with many colleagues I found teaching, at all levels, to be an occupation which offered an increasing sense of pleasure and satisfaction as time went on. The students themselves are the key to this; they are fun to work with and they keep you young as a mentor called Harry Creaser once remarked. Maybe this little tale illustrates the point. On the occasion in question I had just completed some demonstration or other for the edification of a first year class and looked up to observe that a bunch of reprobates occupying their usual seats right at the back of room 125 were holding up large scorecards labelled 5.5, 5.6 etc. Their timing was impeccable in that there was an ice-skating contest in the news at the time and their imitation of the judges was absolutely hilarious. It was a very, very funny moment and the recollection of an entire roomful of students all collapsed into helpless laughter still endures. A pleasant memory from a collection of such, and a most suitable place at which to end.

In some ways Dalhousie was a most frustrating place to work, mainly because the university seemed to engender a managerial style which was less helpful than it might have been, though generally free enough with fine words. On the other hand the work itself remained intensely interesting, and it led to a fair share of interesting experiences. Beyond all that however I have been accorded the opportunity to enjoy the company and on occasion the friendship of colleagues whose abilities commanded my earnest respect, and in working with them was given the chance to participate during some unforgettable years when the Chemistry Department developed almost beyond recognition.

No regrets.