John Ceres Amson

Quick Info

14 April 1927
Liverpool, England
14 March 2023
Anstruther, Fife, Scotland

John Amson was a person of many talents making impressive contributions to welding, city planning and mathematics. He was a founding member, and later president, of the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association. His warmth, humour and energy inspired his friends and colleagues.


John Amson was the son of Harry Amson (1887-1962) and Eleanor Maude (1897-1981). Harry Amson was born in Liverpool on 23 September 1887. The 1911 census gives his occupation as a cashier working for a grain merchant. The 1921 census, taking place in June of that year, records him as a grain inspector working for H & R Ainscough Flour Millers & Grain Merchants. Later in 1921 he married Eleanor Maude who had been born in Liverpool on the 10 January 1897. She was the daughter of Benjamin Maude who was an Examining Officer with H. M. Customs. Harry and Eleanor Amson had a daughter Frances Mary Amson (1925-2010) who was born on 21 March 1925. John Ceres Amson, the subject of this biography, was born two years later. His younger brother, Harry Amson, born on 5 February 1930, became an artist and a passionate environmentalist. Harry Jr died in November 2016.

After primary education in Liverpool, John Amson began his studies in September 1938 at Liverpool Institute High School for Boys at Mount Street, Liverpool. This grammar school had been founded in 1825 and had been managed by Liverpool City Council from 1905. It was an excellent school with a good record of its pupils going to top universities but Amson left the school when he was fifteen. It is not entirely clear why such a talented young boy would leave school so early, but it was in the middle of World War II and the authors of this article, having known John Amson well, think that he could well have thought that he would give better support to his family by undertaking a more practical training. He entered the Liverpool School of Art and Design in 1942, acquired skills in architectural drawing, and by 1948 had trained as a Chartered Land Surveyor.

In September 1949 John Amson, his brother Harry and a friend Dave, were rescued in choppy seas in Liverpool Bay when their boat Gypsy Meg [16]:-
... sprang a leak and was out of control after the foremast had snapped and the sheet torn away by a squall. An auxiliary engine fitted to the boat was not in working order.
They were rescued by the pleasure cruiser, St Tudno, of the Liverpool and North Wales Steamship Company which had over 1000 holidaymakers on board [10]:-
The men who were rescued carried suitcases, haversacks, cameras and rolled up blankets. When they arrived at the Liverpool landing stage they left hurriedly to avoid photographers.
See some pictures of this at THIS LINK.

In 1949 Amson was appointed as a Senior Town Planning Assistant for the North Riding of Yorkshire County Council. In the following year he married Margaret Theresa Newson. She had been born on 9 March 1927 in Guisborough, Yorkshire, the daughter of a banker Reginald Robert Henry Newson and his wife Gladys Askew Steavenson. John and Margaret Amson had a son Christopher C Amson, born in 1952. Although working as a Town Planning Officer, John Amson began teaching himself mathematics, a subject he increasingly found both fascinating and useful, and in 1954 he joined the London Mathematical Society.

Margaret Amson became ill with heart disease and John was determined to raise money for her treatment [12]:-
Desperate to save her, John tried to raise money for treatment by entering a design for an international architecture competition. With herculean effort, while caring for his wife and young son, he also completed A-level correspondence courses in pure and applied mathematics. In light of his results Reading University offered him a scholarship to study mathematics while a kindly professor, impressed by John's intellect, lent the family a caravan to live in on campus.
The quality of an essay he wrote on mathematics and aesthetics was one of the factors leading to the award of the National Mature Student Scholarship to study at Reading University. He began his studies in 1955, living in a Modular Caravan on Shinfield Road, Whiteknights Park, Reading. Sadly, despite all Amson's efforts to save his wife, she died in 1957 and was buried on 4 June of that year. Amson was awarded a B.Sc. with honours and two prizes in Special Mathematics in 1958. After graduating he was appointed as Senior Research Officer and Team Leader (theoretical and experimental) in the Physics of Electric Welding Arc at the British Welding Research Association which was situated in Abington Hall, near Cambridge.

Amson rapidly become internationally known for his brilliant contributions to welding. NASA had begun their Apollo program in 1960 with the aim of building a three person spacecraft. Amson became a consultant in 1961, contributing to studies of welding arc in low pressure and space environments. He was a Keynote Lecturer at the International Institute of Welding Annual University Research Conference of the Welding Research Council in New York in 1961. He flew from London to New York on 9 April 1961 and, on entering the USA, gave the New York address Sheraton-Atlantic Hotel, Broadway, New York. He was a co-organizer of 2nd British Commonwealth Welding Physics Conference held in London in 1962. In the same year his paper An analysis of the gas-shielded consumable metal arc welding system was published in the British Welding Journal. The Abstract begins [1]:-
Equations characterising drop detachment in the gas-shielded consumable-metal-arc welding system are derived, using basic physical principles together with certain physical assumptions and approximations deduced from observations. ....
For more information about that paper, and other papers by Amson, see THIS LINK.

In 1962 he was the British Delegate on the International Institute of Welding's Physics of Welding Arc Committee. He continued to advise this committee as an Expert until 1975. He was also invited to collaborate with Professor N N Rykalin, the Chairman of USSR Welding Committee, Moscow in 1962.

Although by 1962 Amson was an internationally known leading expert in welding, he felt that he wanted to learn more mathematics. Feeling that functional analysis was important for future applications of mathematics, he applied to Cambridge University to undertake research for a Ph.D. He was awarded a Churchill College Research Studentship in 1962 and undertook research advised by Frank Smithies from 1952 to 1965. He submitted his thesis Polynomial operators in Banach space in 1968 and was awarded his Ph.D. in the following year. He submitted the paper [5] to the Journal of the London Mathematical Society in December 1969. He notes [5]:-
The contents of this paper were included in my thesis. I am indebted to Dr F Smithies for suggesting these ideas, and for his guidance and encouragement during their development.
In fact Amson had been appointed by the Regius Professor of Mathematics, Edward Copson, to a Senior Lectureship in Mathematics at the University of St Andrews in 1965, three years before submitting his Ph.D. thesis to the University of Cambridge. The vacancy had been caused by David Borwein accepting a professorship at the University of Western Ontario in 1964. Remarkably, Amson published eight papers in 1972, some on functional analysis, some on planning of cities, and one on the physics of welding. He gives this summary of his research interests between 1965 and 1982 in [13]:-
Senior Lectureship in Mathematics, St Andrews University, specialising in Real, Complex and Functional Analysis, Banach Algebras (1965-1982). Primary research interest: Spectral Theory of Homogeneous Polynomial Operators in Hilbert Space. Awarded Social Sciences Research Council Grants: Advanced Mathematics in Urban Studies (1970-1971, 1977-1978). Introduced discontinuous and catastrophic Evolutionary Dynamics into Urban-&- Regional Systems Studies (1971-1978).
His work on urban studies resulted in two papers, Equilibrium Models of Cities: 1. An Axiomatic Theory (1972) and Equilibrium Models of Cities: 2. Single-Species Cities (1973). The Abstract of the first begins [3]:-
A study is undertaken of the concept of a city as an 'urban gravitational plasma' consisting of one or more species of civic matter (populations, activity rates, and so on) interacting on themselves and each other, and, at the same time, responding to relocation coercions induced by satisfaction potentials of various kinds (housing rentals, amenity levels, and so on). The latter are assumed to be coupled to the territorial densities of the individual species of civic matter through equations of state, for which the housing rental-population density relation in market equilibrium theory is a prototype.
The Abstract to the second paper begins:-
This second part of a study of a city as an 'urban gravitational plasma' investigates in detail the case where the city consists of only one species of civic matter, and is circularly symmetric. To increase the relevance of the theory to actual urban situations, this civic matter is assumed throughout to be a citizen population, though the theory would apply just as well if other illustrations, such as floor space or traffic flows, etc., were to be chosen instead. The population is assumed to attract itself in a way which tends to increase its density in high density regions and to decrease it in low density regions. This 'clumping' effect is offset by another inducement on the population to relocate itself in places where some 'dissatisfaction potential' is less. Again, for illustration, it is assumed throughout that the dissatisfaction has the form of a housing rental, that is, the price of the composite bundle of 'housing' commodities and utilities.
For a fuller version of the Abstracts of these two papers, see THIS LINK.

Let me note that I [EFR] was appointed to the staff in mathematics at the University of St Andrews in 1968 and became Amson's colleague. It was immediately clear to me that John was bubbling over with innovative ideas many of which were unconventional. While undertaking research at Cambridge, Amson had become interested in the Cambridge Language Research Unit. This had been founded in 1955 and there Amson met Fredrick Parker-Rhodes, Ted Bastin and others who were all influenced by Arthur Eddington's ideas regarding various dimensionless and cosmological constants. Eddington had a fascination with the fundamental constants of nature and produced some surprising numerical coincidences most of which were published after his death in Fundamental Theory (1946), a book prepared for publication by Edmund Whittaker. Amson and Parker-Rhodes began working on the Combinatorial Hierarchy, a four level bit string hierarchy they had discovered. This hierarchy had four levels, leading to the sequence 3,10,137,1.7×10383, 10, 137, 1.7 \times 10^{38}, the last two terms being closely associated with the Structure Constants of physics. They wrote two papers, Hierarchies of Descriptive Levels in Physical Theory (1964) and Essentially Finite Chains (1965). Both papers remained unpublished until 1998.
For more information about these 1998 papers, see THIS LINK.

Amson began working with Clive Kilmister on the Combinatorial Hierarchy beginning in 1965. He also worked with Pierre Noyes on approaches to discrete physics via the Combinatorial Hierarchy beginning in 1973. Ted Bastin, Pierre Noyes, John Amson and Clive Kilmister published the paper On the physical interpretation and the mathematical structure of the combinatorial hierarchy in 1973.
For a review of this paper by Slawomir Bugajski, see THIS LINK.

The five collaborators we have just mentioned, Amson, Bastin, Kilmister, Noyes and Parker-Rhodes, formed the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association in 1979. It produced an official Statement of Purpose [13]:-

  1. The primary purpose of the Association is to consider coherent models based on a minimal number of assumptions, so as to bring together major areas of thought and experience within a Natural Philosophy alternative to the prevailing scientific attitude. The Combinatorial Hierarchy, as such a model, will form an initial focus of our discussions.

  2. The Association will seek ways to use its knowledge and facilities for the benefit of humanity and will try to prevent such knowledge and facilities being used to the detriment of humanity.
The Preface to the Proceedings of the 7th Alternative Natural Philosophy Association Conference gave more information about the motivation of the five founders [13]:-
Currently accepted ideas and results based on them in elementary particle physics and cosmology are exciting for some, frustrating for others, and incomprehensible to many who sense the excitement but don't know quite how to join in the game. The group represented by these proceedings share some mix of all three attitudes in varying proportions. Some of us think we are on the track of new physics, or even new philosophy, while others are sceptical. We are not trying to conceal these internal problems from the reader. Rather, we ask him to share our perplexity - along with our excitement.
I [EFR] mentioned above Amson's innovative ideas. Of course, not all these ideas proved the success that he hoped. When given the First Year analysis course to teach, he wondered how to convince the young students, who were just beginning their university mathematical studies, that rigour in mathematical reasoning was essential. He decided that he would spend the first two lectures "proving" obviously incorrect "facts" such as 1 = 2 using convincing looking mathematical arguments. It looked like a great idea, but sadly it was not the success that Amson had hoped for since many of the students ended up thinking they would never be able to trust a mathematical argument again. He never tried that approach again.

After he took up the Senior Lectureship in St Andrews, Amson lived in the centre of the old town at 26 Bell Street. By 1968 he was living at 15 Howard Place and, in the following year, he married Christine Crow in Dundee. Christine was born in Ashford, Kent in 1940, read Modern Languages at Girton College, Cambridge, and studied in Paris as part of a Ph.D. on the work of Paul Valéry. She was appointed to lecture on French Literature at the University of St Andrews in 1965, taking up the appointment at the same time that John Amson took up his appointment in Mathematics.

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 and her government set about making major reforms to higher education, one part of which involved universities making cuts in staff numbers from 1981. John Howie, the head of the Pure Mathematics Department at St Andrews, seemed to believe that the best way he could help the university was to reduce the number of staff in his department. A last-in-first-out policy followed by Howie led to Roy Dyckhoff, who had been appointed as a Lecturer in the Department of Pure Mathematics in 1975, moving to Computer Science in 1981. Amson was not in any danger of being forced out by this policy but we are certain that, for the sake of his colleagues, he chose to take a very early retirement in 1982. Chris Ferguson writes [8]:-
Retirement was in name only, however. There followed many an enabling innovation such as place adjustable sundials, differential gears for tidal clocks, geological research for tidal range lagoons in Scotland and multiple exploratory mathematics and physics papers as president of the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association ...
In [13] we get some further details given by John himself:-
Sole proprietor, Navigational Software Firm (1982-1999), created the first commercial Tidal Prediction Software Package, Europe, 1989. Royal Yachting Association Scotland Volunteer of the Year Award, 2004. Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (1988-).
The author of the article [12] in The Times writes:-
He set up two small businesses: one selling mathematical software for the early personal computers; and the other selling software for navigational position fixing. The latter included early technology for tide prediction and provided information about the daily tides in 31 locations around the UK. For several years it took up a small space on the back page of this newspaper.
His passion for early computing equipment is also mentioned in [7]:-
He was a collector of, and fount of knowledge on, the history of computing hardware; just before he died he donated a collection of early computing equipment to the University Museums.
John and Christine went to live in Anstruther, on the south coast of Fife. Their house there was [12]:-
... overflowing with books, with windowsills stuffed with John's octants, sextants, binoculars, telescopes, cameras and devices with winding handles that implemented astrolabes.
The move to Anstruther meant that Amson could sail on boats and be involved in his passionate love of the sea. He was a member of the Anstruther Sailing Club and organised the Anstruther Harbour Muster, an annual gathering of boats from various places in the east coast, which started in 1997.

In 2008 he published a charming paper on Gregory's meridian line.
You can read this paper at THIS LINK.

His mind remained remarkably active in his last years but his mobility deteriorated and eventually even trips to the local cafe to meet with a friend became beyond him. He wrote in one of his many log books:-
Johnny Amson had,
so much to do,
it wasn't true.
He hadn't even time to die.
This self-penned epitaph typified his sense of humour [7]:-
His mind continued to bubble over with ideas, although he was increasingly frail. His wife, Christine Crow, nursed him at home till the end.
For someone who had been, for his whole life, passionate about the sea it was fitting that, following his wishes, he was buried at sea.

References (show)

  1. J C Amson, An analysis of the gas-shielded consumable metal arc welding system, British Welding Journal 41 (4) (1962), 232-249.
  2. J C Amson, Lorentz force in the molten tip of an arc electrode, British Journal of Applied Physics 16 (8) (1965), 1169-1179.
  3. J C Amson, Equilibrium Models of Cities: 1. An Axiomatic Theory, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 4 (4) (1972), 429-444.
  4. J C Amson, Multimatrix Polyalgebra Representations of the Polar Composition of Polynomial Operators, Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society (3) 25 (3) (1972), 465-485.
  5. J C Amson, Some Continuous, and Compact, Polynomial Operators on Function Spaces, Journal of the London Mathematical Society (2) 5 (2) (1972), 223-230.
  6. J C Amson, Gregory's meridian line of 167374: a St Andrews detective story, British Society for the History of Mathematics Bulletin 23 (2) (2008), 58-72.
  7. Dr John Amson, Churchill College Cambridge.
  8. C Ferguson, John Amson: Former St Andrews lecturer and Anstruther sailing commodore dies, The Courier (24 July 2023).
  9. Gregory's pillar, Peter Cameron's Blog (28 April 2013).
  10. Gypsy Meg Rescue in Irish Sea, News Chronicle (6 September 1949).
  11. John Ceres Amson, The Courier (25 March 2023).
  12. John Amson, 95: Liverpudlian mathematician behind software for tidal predictions, The Times (26 August 2023).
  13. L H Kauffman and John C Amson (eds.), Scientific Essays In Honor Of H Pierre Noyes On The Occasion Of His 90th Birthday (World Scientific, 2013).
  14. H Pierre Noyes, A short introduction to BIT-STRING PHYSICS, arXiv:hep-th/9707020v1 1 Jul 1997 (June 1997).
  15. St Andrews: Where time began?, News, University of St Andrews.
  16. Three saved from leaking boat, Daily Graphic (6 September 1949).

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update September 2023