Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Extraordinary Lives - Derek Jackson

Today we meet a man who was a decorated war hero, and atomic physicist, a jockey, a Fleet Street magnate, one of the “fathers” of the MRI scanner, and a “rampant bisexual” (in the words of his biographer). I could have included Derek Jackson in my physics articles next month, but you'll see why I've included him in my Medicine and Health month.

Derek Ainslie Jackson was born in 1906, one of twin sons of Sir Charles Jackson, an art historian and chairman of the recently disgraced and defunct “News of the World”. On the death of both parents before he was 18 Derek inherited their fortune and part ownership of the “News of the World”. Having the freedom to spend as much money as he wanted on his personal and academic goals allowed him to be fiercely independent at a young age.

At Cambridge University Derek took a degree in natural sciences and was invited by Ernest Rutherford to do research into nuclear physics. Derek turned him down in favour of joining Professor Frederick Lindemann in his research into spectroscopy. Derek bought all his own very expensive equipment and arrived at Lindemann’s Clarendon laboratory in 1927.

It wasn’t long before Derek, at the age of 22, made the “first spectroscopic determination of a nuclear magnetic spin”, as many sources say vaguely. I don’t claim any knowledge of this phenomenon, but basically this refers to how protons in the nucleus spin like tops in all directions. This idea was only theorised two years before.

The idea that the nuclear spin can be aligned inside a magnetic field was instrumental in the development of the MRI scanner. A few protons, though, align in the opposite direction to the majority, and a radio frequency can switch them all in the same alignment. When the frequency is turned off these few protons turn back. The energy created by them turning back can be calculated in a computer to create an image on the screen. However, it took over 40 years before computer technology and magnetic spin physics reached a stage where the first MRI scanner could be designed. Derek’s work helped to visualise how nuclear spin works.

Derek’s expertise in spectroscopy led to him being appointed lecturer in spectroscopy at the Clarendon laboratory in 1934. However, he spent most of his time hob-nobbing in aristocratic and artistic circles and the high life. Among his friends were the gay composer George, Lord Berners, the “Brideshead” family of the 7th Earl Beauchamp (mentioned here), the literary Mitford sisters, and the painter Augustus John, whose daughter Elizabeth “Poppet” he married.

Derek spent many hours at race meetings and fox hunts. Inspired by his love of steeplechase racing he became a jockey in 1935 in the Grand National, the UK’s most famous horse race. He fell, and didn’t complete the course, but entered twice more in 1947 and 1948, both equally unsuccessfully.

When was broke out Derek worked for the Admiralty, but was soon moved to the RAF on Churchill’s intervention. After flying in 60 sorties as a navigator with Fighter Command, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, he became Chief Airborne Radar officer. This was on a project known as Windows. Derek was ideally suited to this eccentric-sounding project. It was so eccentric that the RAF delayed using it, mainly because it was so simple that they didn’t want the Germans to start using it on British aircraft.

The idea was to drop hundreds of tin foil strips from aircraft, which would interfere with enemy radar. As Chief Airborne officer he was in charge of the airborne trials (known as Jackson’s Air Farce). By experimentation Derek worked out how much foil should be dropped and how to improve radar so that you could see through the interference.

Once deployed these tin foil drops were credited with saving about 100 British aircraft in the first week of its operation. For this work Derek received further awards and the US Legion of Merit.

During the war Derek showed some contradictory qualities. He had expressed anti-Jewish views before the war, and his 2nd wife was Pamela Mitford, whose sister married Britain’s fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. The Mosleys were detained during the war and lived with Derek on their release.

With war over Derek became Professor of Spectroscopy at Oxford. He then became tax exile in Ireland, France and Switzerland. He continued his spectroscopy research in France and was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur for his work.

By this time Derek was on wife number 5 out of a total of 6. He continued his research almost to the time of his death in 1982, and was survived by wife 6.

A man of enormous independence, both financially and personally, Derek Jackson could easily have been given a British knighthood had he not become a tax exile. Thanks to his work dropping tin foil out of planes and understanding nuclear magnetic spin Derek has helped to save the lives of many.

No comments:

Post a Comment