History of the Austin Symposium

James E. Boggs

The first Austin Symposium was held as a one-time meeting with a very specific purpose. In the middle 1960’s I was engaged in experimental microwave spectroscopy and Harold Hanson was building a machine for gas-phase electron diffraction in the physics department. We were both concerned about the lack of communication between the practitioners of these two methods that were used to achieve similar results and, to be frank, the scorn with which each regarded the other. Methods that could be used for inter-comparison of the structural parameters, differently defined, were lacking.

Harold and I decided to set up a session called the Austin Symposium on Gas Phase Molecular Structure at the meeting of the American Crystallographic Association that was scheduled to be held in Austin on March 2-3, 1966. We would invite the most prominent scientists involved in the two fields and force them to listen to each other. It succeeded beyond our fondest hopes in terms of attendance (two out of the roughly 25 participants would eventually win Nobel prizes) and in the quality of interaction that resulted.

The meeting was held in the Texas student union with housing in the old Villa Capri motel on the corner of campus. It consisted entirely of 20-minute talks plus lots of off-line discussion.

Even though we had no idea of repeating the meeting, one concept was present in this first meeting that shaped the philosophy of future meetings. That was the importance of listening rather than just talking. We have adamantly refused to have multiple sessions, instead purposely bringing together people with slightly different interests so that they have something to learn from each other. There have been occasional participants who don’t catch on to this idea, but rather come, give their talk, and leave, but these have been a rarity.

Harold and I were so pleased with the result of this meeting that we decided to repeat the experiment. Many things were decided at this time. We thought the meeting should be held every two years with the notion that regular participants should have time to make some significant progress in their work before coming to talk about it again. We decided that the beginning of March was a good time for the meeting, largely based on climatic reasoning – by then there was a decent chance that we would be having spring-like weather in Austin while our northern friends were growing distinctly tired of shoveling snow. It turns out that no time is best for everyone and March has as few objections as any other date. Unlike at the first meeting, we decided to encourage worldwide participation. There was only one non-American talk given at the first meeting, but at the second we had 14 talks given by Americans and 13 by Europeans or Asians. This international flavor has been a main characteristic of the meetings ever since. Harold went on to another position, but I managed to continue the Symposia alone.

At the third Symposium in 1970 we went to a 3-day meeting and first introduced the idea of invited speakers, going all out with 15 of them. Later we settled on the current practice of having 6, one at the beginning of each half-day session.

The 6th Symposium in 1976 brought an innovation that didn’t work out as I intended, but proved useful in another way. I had been concerned about people who came from halfway around the world at their own expense to give a 15 or 20-minute talk. Even if they correctly understood that the purpose of the meeting was to listen rather than to talk, they had a poor opportunity to present their own work for other people to listen to. I conceived the idea that such people should be allowed to submit supplementary abstracts, printed in the regular book of abstracts of the meeting, covering other work of their group but not presented in any other way. The author would be required to be present at the meeting for informal discussion of the work. That idea never caught on, but I was inundated by abstracts from scientists located in areas from which travel to the U.S. was difficult at that time but who nevertheless wanted to present their work to the international audience. I tried to discourage this based on the idea that their could be no discussion, but the demand was strong and active participants in the meeting commented favorably on the presence of reports from these rather isolated groups, so recently I have accepted them without question.

The name of the Symposium continued to have the words “Gas Phase” in it until it was dropped at the 8th meeting in 1980. That was also the first meeting at which a few ab initio theoretical papers began to infiltrate the program. Dieter Cremer presented one of them, a collaborative study with the electron diffraction group in Moscow.

It was not until the 11th Symposium in 1986 that posters were first introduced, giving considerable relief to the remainder of the schedule. They were very popular and remain an important feature. Dieter Cremer and Elfi Kraka, who have now taken over management of the Symposium series, gave a paper at that meeting along with Dieter’s student at that time, Jürgen Gauss.

The technical content of the meetings has steadily evolved, perhaps first by papers that involved combination of several methods for structural analysis with proper attention to the differences of the types of structure that they measured. Quantum chemical papers have increased to the extent that they could take over the meeting if that was permitted, but we still believe that the Symposia should emphasize various experimental methods, possibly welded together by theory. Those experimental methods have certainly changed, with increasing numbers of papers on time-dependent measurements, the so-called field of molecular dynamics. Papers have been favored that deal with novel experimental set-ups, leading to novel information about the change of structure during chemical reactions as well as static structures.

Several banquet talks were especially memorable, including one by Kozo Kuchitsu in 1980 on “The training of a molecular scientist, east and west”. It presented a description of the Japanese tradition influenced by Zen philosophy and emphasizing non-verbal communication between the teacher and his student. Direct comparison was made with Japanese archery, in which one does not aim at the target but lets the target draw the arrow into itself. Several reprints of this talk appeared later.

Another banquet talk by Ian Mills in 1992 consisted of a spoof in which he recounted the history of the French scientist M. Litre and his creation of the litre measure. He showed a picture of M. Litre, which bore a strange resemblance to someone else. No one caught on to the fact that this was all made up, although Mills expected to be called out at any moment. Perhaps people had drunk too much wine. I think Mills was disappointed in us.

Much of the success of the Symposium series has been the long-term friendships and numerous collaborations it has initiated. Perhaps the most dramatic of these involved Harry Kroto from England. I was impressed by his ability as a young spectroscopist and was able to furnish minor support for him to come to the Symposium from time to time. At the 1984 meeting, Bob Curl was also here from Rice and the two found many common interests. Bob invited Harry to stop in at Rice on the way home, which he did. While he was there, Bob took him to meet Rick Smalley and see an experiment he was doing. The three of them hatched up the idea of doing a similar experiment with carbon, which they accomplished in September of 1985. The result was the discovery of fullerenes and Nobel prizes for all of them, followed by the discovery of related nanotubes and all the subsequent nano-science and nanotechnology that have created such a revolution in modern science.

The Austin Symposia will surely change under the new management by Elfi Kraka and Dieter Cremer reflecting the changing nature of the science. They have long experience with the Symposia, Dieter having attended 6 meetings, starting in 1980 and Elfi 3 meetings. I hope that the Symposia maintain their atmosphere of a meeting of friends brought together not to boast of their achievements but to learn from each other, particularly from colleagues using different methods and theoretical constructs in the pursuit of a deeper understanding of molecular structure and dynamics, the foundation of much of chemistry and physics.