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"Colinton Cottages"

Times obituary

Arnold Beevers



10 Feb 03


Dear Hillary,

           It is good of you to think about how to celebrate Dick's birthday.  I don't have anything very suitable to contribute, but perhaps a short disquisition on birthdays, celebrations and units would do?

      Why should anyone approaching 831/3 years of age wish to celebrate this unlikely age?  Because they will have reached the age of 1000 - measured in months.  It is a sort of personal reminiscence, second only to a century.  Check that 831/3 years x 12 = 1000 months.  I worked this out while lying awake one night, but over the years many other people must have fallen over it.  Pass it on to Dick, it may amuse him.  I don't suggest you should replace 3 March 03 by 3 July 06 for your celebration.

With Best Wishes and Many Happy
      Returns for Dick.

(Sorry about my shaky hand!)

Yours sincerely
Bill Cochran

Sadly, Bill died in August, 2003. Dick writes:
Bill's very kind letter prompted me to realise that I had perhaps known him longer than anyone else in the Physics Department. Bill must have come to Edinburgh University as a student in 1939, and I came in 1940 to follow a year behind. I went off to the Admiralty in 1943, and when I returned in 1946 Bill had done an outstanding PhD (under Arnold Beevers) on the structure of the rochelle salt crystals.

Bill then moved to Cambridge, and we had only occasional but valued contacts until his return to Edinburgh (1964) to reinvigorate the Department. The present depth and vigour of the department testify to his success in transforming Feather's legacy into a modern, broad, thriving outfit. All of us who participated can feel proud and grateful for Bill's shrewd and unobtrusive leadership.

How much Ingrid's care and support contributed to Bill's brilliant career, and to the courage with which they both faced the distressing certainties of these last few years, we can only guess, and feel awe, and profound respect.

Philip Harper has allowed us to include the following extract from the laureation address he gave when, as Dean of Science, he presented Bill for the degree of Doctor of Science at the Heriot Watt University in 19**.
Some Scottish scientists and engineers achieve eminence and enjoy reputations abroad. Professor William Cochran, of world fame, has enjoyed his reputation mostly at home. His native land and culture have ever claimed deep affection and attention. How many Scots physicists compose their verse in Lallans? It is not for these endearing qualities that we honour him however, but for his place in the Scottish Pantheon of physicists.

According to Newton, physics deals with the causes of sensible effects. Professor Cochran has distinguished himself both for measuring sensible effects, that is, for his experimental skills, and for penetrating insight into the causes. His particular interest always seems to have centred around the myriad varieties of crystal and molecular forms, from simple diamond with its close-packed carbon atoms, to the mysterious DNA molecule and its life-giving helix structure.

His early education was here in Edinburgh, leading to a first-class honours degree in physics, then to a PhD in 1946 in the department of chemistry, working under another notable Edinburgh scientist Dr Arnold Beevers. Newton's classic definition by the way, naturally regards chemistry (and possibly a few other sciences) as merely part of physics.

He left Edinburgh University for the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, where he eventually became Reader and Fellow of Trinity Hall College. It was here, continuing his research into the X-ray determination of crystal structures that he became involved with the now historic discovery of the DNA structure. In the book, The Double Helix, by James Watson, it is related that Francis Crick, excited and concerned about finding the right theory rushes to consult with "Bill Cochran, a small quiet Scot, ...the cleverest of the younger Cambridge X-ray people". Professor Cochran (Bill) in fact produced the first correct theory that finally elucidated the DNA structure of the molecule which encodes genetic information about life itself. Pioneering work at that period, including the use of computers, which he introduced, still stands as the basis of modern techniques.

Professor Cochran spent the year 1958/59 working in Canada at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, but now developing neutron rather than X-ray diffraction. This allows the study of the very movement of atoms and ions and thereby the forces acting between them. He turned his attention to what are called ferro electric crystals and I remember my own excitement as a young researcher reading his early papers on that subject. The notions he introduced are now regarded as fundamental to structures in general. This work was continued back in Cambridge with the assistance of his postgraduate students, now themselves leaders in the physics community. In recognition of his achievements he was elected to fellowship of the Royal Society of London in 1962. About this time he confirmed his continental European credentials, and considerable foresight, in marrying Ingrid, from Sweden.

In 1964 he returned to Edinburgh as Professor of Physics, founding the specialised Solid State group whose identity and work continues to distinguish his old department. His ability to teach with clarity and simplicity endeared him to students at all levels, who speak of him with great affection. Heriot-Watt University has reason to be grateful for his wisdom and advice in setting up its own Department of Physics.

In recent years he shouldered the burdens of university administration, first as head of the Department of Physics, then as Dean of Science, and finally as Vice-Principal. These times saw the beginning of the great changes now facing all universities. At his formal retirement in 1987 he remarked (and his words still echo) that he was not altogether sorry to demit office because "academia is no longer the life for a gentleman".

Professor Cochran epitomises the academic Scottish gentleman, with his continuing interest in Scottish literature and heritage, and the Scottish landscape. A fine example of the best that this country has produced.
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