Obituary - John Maxwell Cowley (1923 - 2004)

Obituary | Publications Curriculum Vitae | Videos | Slides | Articles 


John Maxwell Cowley (1923 - 2004)

ACA RefleXions, Fall 2004

John Cowley


John M. Cowley, 81, Regents' Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Arizona State University, died suddenly on May 18. Cowley was born Feb. 18, 1923 in Adelaide, Australia. He earned his master's degree from the University of Adelaide in 1945, and his doctoral degree from the M.I.T. in 1949. Cowley was employed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Melbourne, Australia, from 1945 to 1962, starting his career as assistant research officer and later becoming chief research officer and head of the crystallography section. He began his academic career in 1963 when he was appointed the Chamber of Manufacturers' Professor of Physics at the University of Melbourne.

Cowley joined ASU in 1970, when he was recruited for the university's first endowed chair, the Galvin Professorship in Physics. He founded the electron microscopy facility, which under his leadership came to be recognized as the premier electron microscopy center in the world, and he served as the facility's director from 1983 to 1990. The Center produced many outstanding doctoral students and attracted many leading scientists and post-doctoral researchers from around the world. Cowley's scientific leadership over the years is widely regarded as playing a highly significant role in establishing ASU as a Research I University.

In 1988, Cowley was among the first group of distinguished faculty bestowed with the title Regents' Professor, an honor reserved for a limited, small fraction of the faculty who have demonstrated exceptional scholarship and outstanding achievements. He officially retired from the university in 1994 but he continued to be highly active. He spent time in his campus office almost every day, including the day of his death.

In January 2003, an international workshop was held on the ASU campus to celebrate Cowley's 80th birthday and the 25th anniversary of the Center for High Resolution Electron Microscopy. At the Symposium dinner, Cowley was acclaimed by the attendees, who came from all over the world, for his pioneering contributions in the fields of electron microscopy, diffraction and crystallography. In October 2003, the Center for High Resolution Electron Microscopy was re-named in his honor.

Cowley was an extraordinarily productive scientist with an illustrious career that spanned more than five decades. His ideas, enthusiasm and basic understanding of electron optics and diffraction phenomena provided inspiration and leadership to the entire field of electron microscopy. His mono- graph Diffraction Physics is the standard reference in the field. He received the highest awards of the IUCr, the Electron Microscopy Society of America and the ACA, and he was honored by election to Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science, The Royal Society of London, and the American Physical Society.

John Maxwell Cowley was universally admired by his peers and colleagues as a great scientist with a kind and generous personality who was always supportive. His passing is a grievous loss to the campus microscopy community and the entire field of electron microscopy, which benefited greatly from his guidance and leadership. He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Roberta, two daughters Jillian and Deborah, and two grand-children.

- David Smith, ASU

Editors note: In 1976 John Cowley, together with S. Iijima, received the Bertram Eugene Warren Diffraction Physics Award for High Resolution Electron Microscopy of Crystal Structures.At the 1987 IUCr meeting in Perth, Australia, John Cowley and Alexander Moodie were awarded the First Ewald Prize. From the citation for that award: A theory of Fourier images led them to the multi-slice formulation of the scattering of an electron wave in its passage through a crystal. This formulation is able to take into account many hundreds of scattered beams, and has become the basis of widely-used computer programs. The theory allows the electron micrographs, obtained with modern high resolution instruments, to be reliably and quantitatively interpreted, and used for the determination of the structures of both perfect crystals and crystals containing defects. Professor Cowley and Dr. Moodie, together and separately, have made many further contributions to theory, methods and results in electron diffraction and microscopy. Their work has often stressed a unified approach to diffraction and microscopy through physical optics. An overview of the whole field may be found in Professor Cowleys book Diffraction Physics (1981)."


Confessions of a Cowleyphile* - An Appreciation

I had originally begun work in electron diffraction to examine materials that refused to crystallize to sizes suitable for x-ray data collection. Funded by a freshly-minted NIH grant, promising to determine lipid structures with electron diffraction data, it soon became apparent that my thesis advisors warning might have been correct, and that I was indeed in hot water over my head! Somewhere during a frustrating struggle with incomprehensible physics papers, attempting to understand what was going wrong with my data, I began to write Professor John Cowley to ask him questions about dynamical scattering theory. I had often examined his well-written papers that conveyed concepts even if I could not always follow the mathematics. (I am a chemist, not a physicist.) Since he did not know me, he had no pressing reason to answer my queries, but, faithfully, I received long, patient letters back from him with clarifications so that I eventually learned. Later, I was able to pose questions to him at scientific meetings. He was always courteous and I soon learned that one should listen carefully to every word that he spoke because each was pregnant with meaning. The eventual appearance of his excellent monograph, Diffraction Physics, was also a godsend to me. Once, I asked him about what one should do about determining crystal structures from such data and he encouraged me always to try a kinematical approach first. This was a time when the stated impossibility of such an endeavor almost became an article of faith in a weird scientific imitation of a Cold War struggle - it was regarded as madness to determine structures from such data, even (especially!) if the Russians said it was OK. However this formulator of multiple beam dynamical theory had also attempted to solve structures from electron diffraction data and had actually made some progress. A careful reading of Cowley's work in the 1960's revealed that he was one of the few in the West who bothered to read the Russian publications in this field to understand what they were doing with texture diffraction data. (He actually justified some of their assumptions from a more rigorous theoretical framework, and, had other electron diffractionists paid similar attention, perhaps the precession method for electron diffraction would have been invented much earlier.) In short, John Cowley always took the time to listen and to understand, revealing his fundamental respect for fellow researchers, no matter how political boundaries were drawn. He was obviously more interested in finding truth than spouting scientific dogma.

In my career, I have been lucky enough to meet many great crystallographers and diffraction physicists of preceding generations - people who actually began great things - but few, I feel, have been of the intellectual caliber of John Cowley, who was the consummate scholar and innovator of his field. While he did not suffer fools, he was always generous to the honestly inquisitive and always found time to talk with them. I last saw him in 2000 when I gave a lecture in a series to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Center for Solid State Science at ASU. Although "retired" he was still working on the VG instrument and he joyfully demonstrated to me how he could walk a 5 Å diameter electron beam through the unit cell of a crystal. His lifes work touched on many topics of diffraction and microscopy and it was all good.

I am, above all, grateful to John Cowley for his generous advice to a kid from the cornfields of Pennsylvania, and his encouragement and help in later stages as research efforts began to succeed. To this day, my feelings for him would be best described by the German word, Ehrfurcht. I am grateful to have broken bread with this master, who, by his kindness and basic humanity, on top of manifold accomplishments, has greatly enriched my life and work.

- Doug Dorset

* I was once called this by Elmar Zeitler when he was at the Fritz-Haber-Institut in Berlin-Dahlem; indeed, it was a correct identification.