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23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

Please note that I always addressed Stephen Mason in person as Prof, never as Steve in the way that my more relaxed contemporaries did. Likewise I have always referred to him in the third person as SFM.

Somewhat private and aloof though (I believe) from a certain degree of shyness rather than arrogance, invariably wreathed in pipesmoke, and always dressed casually, in check shirt, tweed jacket and corduroy trousers or suchlike, SFM came across initially as a public school Housemaster rather than a professional scientist of the sort I had encountered before. This impression was reinforced by his oratorical and emphatic way of speaking, and I realised early on that this was not going to be a cosy relationship. Three years or so later I eventually realised that he was actually a very kindly man, in addition to his undeniable erudition, and I was very pleased to hear the subsequent news that he had been elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society.

Please click links to read and / or print biographical details of SFM:

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

and of his wife Joan, also a distinguished chemist:

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

There is also a first-class account, written by Roger Grinter, now Emeritus Reader, The School of Chemistry, UEA, as commissioned for publication in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of The Royal Society, which provides a wonderful kaleidoscope of SFM's early life, education and unusually varied academic career, together with his deeply rewarding marriage to Joan:

Roger Grinter, Biogr. Mems Fell. R. Soc. 57, 253-268 (2011)
(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

But first I had to find my feet and get my bearings, to pick up (very slowly and hesitantly) the rudiments of quantum chemistry in general and electronic spectroscopy in particular - not so easy in those days when there were few specialist textbooks and Wikipedia was still beyond the horizon.

Please click link to read and / or print details from my Ph D thesis:

Chapter 3: Isotropic and polarised electronic spectroscopy

Had I held fire for forty years, I could almost certainly have fast-tracked this period by reading a modern text such as Roger's 'The Quantum in Chemistry' - even so, he was renowned for his photocopied handwritten Beginners' Guides to all the really tricky issues that had to be mastered along the way.

I had also to learn computer programming - fortunately in Fortran rather than the dead-end of Algol. Becoming desperate to find something useful to do, I followed up a colleague's suggestion of writing a program to unpick the component bands in a composite electronic spectrum. This became widely-used within the department and eventually contributed a chapter to my thesis. I'm still very proud of it.

Please click link to read and / or print details from my Ph D thesis:

Chapter 4: Empirical analysis of absorption spectra

In my second and third years, under the guidance of a close colleague, I began to acquire the necessary mathematical background for the computation of molecular properties, and developed a general-purpose Fortran package for the computation of one-electron matrix elements which could be used as an ancillary to molecular wavefunctions independently computed by some other program, in order to generate the electronic properties of particular interest in the study of UV spectroscopy, optical activity and circular dichroism (CD).

Please click link(s) to read and / or print details from my Ph D Thesis:

Chapter 2: Computation of matrix elements
Appendix 1: Spherical and cubical harmonics
Appendix 2: Multipole moments
Appendix 6: Hypervirial Theorems

Emboldened by this, I then progressed to the calculation of the two-electron matrix elements needed for computation of atomic and molecular electronic wavefunctions themselves. In retrospect, I'm glad I did, but at the time it was a rash decision as the techniques I possessed were inadequate for the three- and four-centre integrals which would be required for non-linear polyatomic molecules - a necessary structural requirement for the dissymmetry that engenders the optical activity and CD that was to be computed...

Please click link to read and / or print details from my Ph D Thesis:

Chapter 2: Computation of matrix elements

At the beginning of my third year, SFM appeared round my (shared) office door with a slip of paper, bearing the appointed title of my thesis and then disappeared again before I had time to protest. It read as follows

'Molecular Orbital Computations of the Electronic Structure
of pi-electron and d-Electron Systems'

and it might even have added

'With particular reference to tris-ortho-phenanthroline metal complexes'

I resolved then and there that the write-up should make no specific mention of any such topics. And it didn't - well, not more than the first line of the title.

Please click link to read and / or print details from my Ph D Thesis:

Chapter 1: Molecular orbital electronic wavefunctions

Towards the end of that year it was announced that SFM would be moving to Kings College London to take up a Chair of Chemistry there, and at this point he suggested, quite out of the blue, that I could not only have a desk there, but also that he could provide a further year's funding to support the writing-up of my thesis.

Just before Christmas 1970, at a time when he had not yet fully integrated into the departmental scene, the KCL Chemistry Department put on its annual cabaret, featuring a sketch entitled 'Professor Mason - Man or Myth?' I was sitting within hearing distance of SFM, and remarked sepulchrally "If he didn't exist, would it be necessary to invent him?" Recognising the allusion to Voltaire's question about God, SFM at once turned towards me and exclaimed "If only for your benefit, Robin!" After that, relations became if not effusive then certainly very cordial.

I handed him a bound copy of the thesis, impeccably typed by my wife, only a week or two before the Viva, so he would have had little or no time to get any detailed perspective as to exactly what I had been doing in the preceding four years. In the Viva, however, he came to my rescue repeatedly when the External Examiner rather peevishly belittled the comparatively meagre fruits of my labours, and at a particularly sticky moment, SFM magically summoned a tray of tea and biscuits, after which all was plain sailing.

Please click link to read and / or print details from my Ph D Thesis:

Title Page, Acknowledgements and Table of Contents

and a recently-discovered online library-reference for the thesis itself:


(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

As background to the External Examiner, the well-respected David Peters of QMC University of London, please see the following typical reference:

David Peters, J. Chem. Phys. 51, 1559 (1969); Self-Consistent-Field Molecular Orbital Theory of the Chemical Bond. I. Formal Theory

There was other stuff in that thesis, for which I had no personal enthusiasm, but had pursued rather half-heartedly out of political expediency during the final year or so. This additional material related firstly to SFM's take-up of so-called octant rules for optically-activated functional groups (such as carbonyl), in which the sign of the CD could allegedly be based upon which geometrical sector of the group the perturbing substituent was located.

Please click link to read and / or print details from my Ph D Thesis:

Chapter 5: Perturbation theory of optical activity

The other topic was even further out of my comfort zone and was concerned with the coupling of electronic and vibrational components of the collective wavefunctions of molecular dimers, so that the overall wavefunctions are not simply multiplicative products of electronic and vibrational factors (as per the Born-Oppenheimer paradigm) but linear combinations of such products. This is of course not to be wondered at, and SFM seized upon the idea eagerly. So I surveyed a good deal of the late-breaking literature in an effort to make some sense of the ideas that were coming up in departmental seminars, but without any conviction that I could personally bring anything to the party.

Please click link(s) to read and / or print details from my Ph D Thesis:

Chapter 6: Exciton theory and vibronic states of dimers
Appendix 3: Born-Oppenheimer theory (I)
Appendix 4: Born-Oppenheimer theory (II)
Appendix 5: Vibrational wavefunctions