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Obituary: John Corner

The development of nuclear weapons has had a most profound effect on world affairs and yet few people have any knowledge of the scientists and engineers who brought this about. John Corner was one such scientist who lead the theoretical design of nuclear warheads almost from the inception of the United Kingdom Programme until his retirement in 1975.

Born in Newcastle, he was educated at the Newcastle Royal Grammar School and at Peterhouse, Cambridge where he obtained a First in Parts I and II of the Mathematical Tripos in 1937 and was awarded a PhD in 1946. He lectured in mathematics at Liverpool University from 1937 to 1939 when he joined the Ordnance Board, but was transferred in 1942 to the Armament Research Dept to work under Dr J.W. Maccoll on Interior Ballistics. During this time with Maccoll he published a large number of papers on the thermodynamics and thermo-chemistry of guns in the scientific journals.

It is a measure of his scientific quality that as early as 1944 Maccoll suggested to Corner that there was a need for a modern text book on Interior Ballistics which he could satisfy. Pressure of wartime work prevented an immediate start, but the book Theory of the Interior Ballistics of Guns was published in 1950. It became a standard work on this topic and remains so to this day.

In the opening chapter John Corner writes: "Where measurements involve a considerable amount of work it pays to have as accurate a theory as possible." Measurements on nuclear weapons involve an enormous amount of work and Corner devoted his many talents for the rest of his career to establishing the best possible theoretical basis for nuclear warhead design.

He came into nuclear matters somewhat fortuitously when Dr William Penney, later Lord Penney, came back from Hiroshima with a collection of crushed cans and bent poles from which he hoped to establish the yield of the Hiroshima weapon. There was a great deal of calculation to be done and the Government lent him two mathematicians, of whom Corner was one, to help.

As soon as Penney was appointed to lead the newly approved atomic weapons programme he had no hesitation in recruiting Corner to lead the theoretical group, where his promotion was very rapid. He reached the rank of Superintendent in 1950, the youngest appointment to that level ever made. It was during this period at Fort Halstead, in Kent, that he laid the groundwork, with Penney, for the design of a fission bomb culminating in the successful test at Montebello, a group of uninhabited islands off north-west Australia, in 1952.

The calculation of the outcome of a nuclear explosion was then, and still is, a matter of repetitive calculation of a very large number of sequential events. In those days of hand calculating machines this could take many months, but the new-fangled electronic machines appeared ideally suited to the task, if only they could be made to work faster. Corner set up a strong computer- orientated group who applied pressure on the computer companies such as Ferranti, ICL and IBM, to produce bigger and faster machines.

Fortunately adequate machines did become available to meet the heavy demands of the 1950s. In 1953 Corner was offered the chair of Theoretical Physics at Newcastle University, but decided to move to Aldermaston where his team was steadily built up by the recruitment of mathematicians and theoretical physicists in anticipation of a possible thermo- nuclear programme. Such a programme was authorised by the Government in 1954 with the knowledge that an international ban on testing in the atmosphere was not too far away. Thus there was tremendous pressure to demonstrate a thermonuclear device in the shortest possible time. Bearing in mind that for every design built and tested many more were computed and discarded it was a hectic period for Corner and indeed for the whole establishment.

Thermonuclear tests were conducted at Christmas Island in 1957 and 1958 and their success not only provided a basis for a British deterrent but facilitated the signing of the 1958 Bilateral Treaty for Co- operation on Nuclear Weapons with the United States. The first exchanges under this treaty took place in the autumn of 1958 with Corner playing a leading part. It ended the period of total isolation in which he had so far worked and began a more normal scientific environment involving peer criticism in which Corner quickly established his authority.

He was a quiet, somewhat secretive man who would not tolerate looseness of thought in others. In a sense these were very desirable characteristics for one engaged in developing nuclear weapons. He ran his group, of which he was very proud, in his own highly individual way. His instructions to his staff, and indeed to the rest of the establishment on what he required, were sent out in the form of terse little personal notes, which ensured that he was the hub of his Group's activities.

This way of working makes it difficult for the outsider, in particular, to assess his personal contribution to the project. This will have to await the verdict of the historians, but there can be little doubt that it was outstanding, and it was given public recognition in 1958 when he was appointed CBE.

He was well known for his witticisms and his aphorisms. Some of the latter are worth quoting because they illustrate his approach to work and to life: "It is better to know a lot about something you know you must master than a little about everything under the sun"; "You cannot know too much about your deterrent but you can know too little"; and finally, "There must be no doubts about the functioning of the deterrent".

In a sense John Corner defied the first of these aphorisms in that being widely read and blessed with a good memory he seemed to know a lot about everything under the sun. Indeed, it was impossible to find a topic on which he couldn't add to or correct your knowledge.

His meticulous approach to his scientific work was reflected in his domestic life. Every purchase made was first subject to such a detailed and probing research as to its cost- effectiveness in comparison with the alternatives that he became a valued guide to the "best-buy". So thorough were these researches that at one time he refused to travel on certain airlines because of the low flash point of the fuel they used.

His other outside interests were walking, reading and trains. All his visits to the United States included at least one train journey.

To sum up, John Corner was a brilliant scientist with some endearing quirks of character which made him stand out from his fellows. He retired to live near Dartmouth in 1975 but unfortunately his latter years were marred by the advent of Parkinson's disease.

John Corner, scientist; born Newcastle upon Tyne 24 January 1916; CBE 1958; married 1945 Kathleen Thurston (one son, one daughter); died Dartmouth, Devon 23 July 1996.