Author Q&A Session: John R. Helliwell

CRC Press is pleased to share with you our author Q&A session with John R. Helliwell, author of The Whys of a Scientific LifeSkills for a Scientific LifePerspectives in Crystallography.

Q&A with John R. Helliwell

Congratulations on the publication of your book The Whys of a Scientific Life. What do you want your audience to take away from the book?

Thank you. Firstly, let’s define the audiences I am aiming at. The understanding of why scientists do what they do should and does interest several audiences namely the Public, Politicians, School children and their parents and last but not least scientists themselves should consider these topics.

What inspired you both to put this book together?

CRC Press’s Hilary LaFoe responded very positively to my ideas for a new book. Specifically, she suggested that CRC Press had a new book series on Global Science Education. I thought the concept for this was excellent. I also thought that an excellent place to start would be The Whys of a Scientific Life, the book title in my mind. This title arose because my previous book on Skills for a Scientific Life had chapters nearly all defined as “How to….”. So, a complementary title would now be “Why”. Nearly every one of my chapter titles is “Why….”.

Why is this book relevant to present day?

My book is relevant to people of all ages. Also it is relevant to scientists today where they are more and more exhorted to explain their research and its wider impacts..

How do you think your field is evolving today?

Science policy is evolving because Governments and Funding Agencies seek to direct the research that is done to be more and more obviously for the good of Society. Such a policy seems laudable, and in some ways is, but some of the most impactful discoveries in science were not immediately obvious as having applications. I explore in my book these perspectives.

What are the main developments in research that you are seeing in your subject area of expertise?

There are many and I do give some practical examples of my own in my new book which illustrate the general discussion I am elaborating on. I also refer everyone to my recent book Perspectives in Crystallography, also published by CRC Press in 2015, where you can see a detailed explanation, which answers your question.

What makes your book stand out from its competitors?

I genuinely believe my book has no competitors with its combination of modern-day policy matters, careers relevance and philosophy of science in the context of modern developments especially the hugely improved scope for primary i.e. raw data archiving arriving finally at objectivity.

Is there one piece of research included in the book which surprised you or challenged your previous understanding of the topic?

The pace of research and development taken as a whole outstrips an individual’s vision and imagination, including mine. It is this cooperative enterprise overall that science is. I mean ‘overall’ to allow for the fact that individuals can compete fiercely and not cooperatively.

What did you enjoy about writing this book?

I especially enjoyed researching each of the “Why” chapter topics and sometimes being moved to quote some policy matter announcements.


About the Author

What first attracted you to this topic as an area of study?

When I retired from my full-time academic post I had chance to explore in more depth topics that have always interested me.

Tell us an unusual fact about yourself and your teaching or writing style?

I imagine it is unusual for me to have such a diverse combination of experience teaching physicists, chemists and biochemists, to have run a very active research laboratory, to have designed and built important instruments and developed new methods in my field and to have had a senior role in the scientific civil service.

What advice would you give to an aspiring researcher in your field?

As the back cover to “The Whys of a Scientific Life” elaborates scientists are driven by their curiosity but they do of course work within a complex environment. That is a challenging mix to try and navigate. So, I hope my book is of help to scientists too.

Do you have plans for future book series? What’s next in the pipeline for you?

Next up I have chance i.e. approved by CRC Press to further support this important initiative of the Book Series on Global Science Education with my next book “The Whats of a Scientific Life”.

What is the last book you read (non-academic)?

“One, two buckle my shoe” by Agatha Christie. It is truly a “Classic Hercule Poirot mystery” as the front cover of the book states.

What do you like about publishing with CRC Press? What has encouraged you to continue working with us?

I had been very happy working with Taylor and Francis on Crystallography Reviews. This led to my first two books being with CRC Press, and now also this third one. I find them very professional and responsive e.g. sharing second proofs.

“Who was/is your role model? Who inspired you to pursue a career in...?”

I found the research work of Max Perutz on using X-ray crystallography to understand the workings of the oxygen transport protein haemoglobin inspiring. This was during my biophysics option course at the University of York when I did my physics degree. I didn’t realise then that I would spend so much of my career working on instrumentation and methods developments, in effect that X-ray crystallography was far from perfect. Its scope is now transformed out of all recognition. My ideas, and frustration with the state of the art of instrumentation in 1975, led me to have discussions with Dorothy Hodgkin, also Nobel Prize winner like Max Perutz, and which also profoundly changed my research career.

Anything else you would like to add?

Interested readers can turn to my audio interviews on my scientific career with the British Library and held in their archives. The weblink is

Hilary LaFoe


Environmental Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Green Chemistry, Sustainable Science & Drug Discovery

John R. Helliwell is Emeritus Professor

of Chemistry at the University of Manchester. He was awarded a DSc degree in physics from the University of York in 1996. He was Director of Synchrotron Radiation Science at the Council for the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils (CCLRC). He has served as President of the European Crystallographic Association (ECA). He is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Society of Biology, and the American Crystallographic Association. In 1997, he was made an Honorary Member of the National Institute of Chemistry, Slovenia. He was elected a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona, Spain, in 2015. He was made an Honorary Member of the British Biophysical Society in 2017. He has recently been made an Honorary Fellow of the British Biophysical Society. And soon (April 2019) to be made an Honorary Member of the British Crystallographic Association. He was the Kathleen Lonsdale Lecturer of the British Crystallographic Association in 2011, the Patterson Prize Awardee of the American Crystallographic Association in 2014, and the Max Perutz Prize Awardee of the European Crystallographic Association in 2015. He is the International Union of Crystallography Representative at the International Council for Science Committee on Data. He has published more than 200 research publications and two research monographs.

Read John R. Helliwell speech that he presented during his book signing at Blackwells on March 7, 2019.

"I am very grateful to Blackwells

for hosting this event, to Lucy Pink of Taylor and Francis CRC Press for organising

it and to you all for coming along.

The Whys of a Scientific Life followed on naturally from my last book, Skills for a Scientific Life, which is a how-to guide for scientists and those that aspire to engage in science as a career.

I will complete the series with the third and final title The Whats of a Scientific Life, which I am actively writing now, making then a Trilogy: the Hows, the Whys and the Whats of a Scientific Life.

With this new book, The Whys of a Scientific Life, I feel honoured to be the first in the Focus Series on Global Science Education, and indeed it seems a good place for such a Series to start with an examination of these Whys.

I have had a diverse background in scientific research. This includes academic departments of physics and chemistry, including applying these disciplines to biological themes. I have also worked in the scientific civil service, including analytical services to industry, at the UK’s Synchrotron Radiation Source. These have all given me a wide perspective of the variety of the choices that scientists make.

The question Why is such a powerful one in science. Within basic curiosity driven science it need pay no attention to applications. In my own scientific career I mentioned “Why does a lobster change colour on cooking?” as a prime example of basic curiosity. It also surprised me just how much media, public and school children interest there was in our press release on this, made jointly with Imperial College and my colleague there Prof Naomi Chayen.

Fundamentally, a scientist asks questions based on curiosity. This is expressed in a variety of ways. Making a hypothesis, asking what happens if, devising a collection, wanting to see a research topic to completion and so on.

In addition though, the environment of the scientist is naturally very important. Society itself, particularly the individual voters, influences their elected governments, and thereby shapes the scientific research that is undertaken by scientists.

However the boundary between directed research and curiosity based research is always a sensitive matter for researchers not least if there is an attempt to move that boundary by governments. To be practical about it, new funding is the tool used by governments to incentivise such changes.

John Polanyi based in Toronto, Canada, Nobel Prizewinner in Chemistry, and who was a chemistry student here at the University of Manchester, both undergraduate and postgraduate,  provided me with the book’s frontispiece quotation:-

 “It is important that we reflect upon our craft, since our understanding of science will inform public policy towards it – 'science policy' as it is called.

He also provided a glimpse of the strong feelings of scientists about such matters as government direction of research:-

“(In my country, Canada) We have 'Centres of Excellence' because we recognize that the skill on which discovery depends is possessed by a few. But then such centres are evaluated with just 20% weight to 'excellence'. A preposterous 80% is reserved for 'socio-economic worth evaluation'”.

At a workshop on research grant writing at the University of Manchester  I recall mischievously asking, in the section on research impact statements: did Faraday mention the electric light bulb when he was researching the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism?. Of course he didn’t but I think it made the point that it is curiosity that brought us electricity and magnetism.

In my book I try to steer a path, as objectively as possible, to explain the good intentions of governments and the good intentions of scientists in all such matters.  This includes innovation, patenting and commercialisation by scientists, in academe and in industry.

Where for scientists curiosity is a key driver in their scientific push, the context continually changes as technology pushes us forward beyond our own imaginations. The computer is a prime example.  Compared to its initial 32 words on the Manchester Baby, the first stored program computer in 1948, the 8 Gbytes of my laptop today offers opportunities inconceivable to 1948 scientists for calculations. The 1 Tbyte of hard drive data storage my laptop has is also just one part of the immense opportunities of digital storage capacity that data archives, such as the EU’s Zenodo, now offer. Today, archiving of primary experimental data, the raw data, offers the ultimate in scientific objectivity. Yes, science is about objectivity through data not only subjective consensus through collective opinions.  


In terms of writing style I have tried to make my book accessible to wide and diverse audiences. I believe it is:-

·         User friendly and concise;


·         This has been aided by my experience in mentoring science students and staff, both at the University of Manchester as Senior Mentor and at Daresbury Laboratory as Director of Synchrotron Radiation Science, and also in my outreach lectures for the public and in schools;


How did I conclude my book? I decided to make the final chapter on the joys of the scientist in research.  For me I cited the understanding of how molecular structures change with time to achieve their goals such as in enzyme catalysis as can be precisely studied by crystallography at physiologically relevant temperatures. This theme of course also emphasised the power of scientific data to underpin scientific understanding and objectivity.  


again to you all for coming along."

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