CTR Wilson: Scotland’s First Physics Nobel Prize Winner – Hunterian Insight Talk

Date: 17 March 2015CTR Wilson
Time: 1pm
Speaker: Dr Alec MacKinnon, Centre for Open Studies
Location: Hunterian Museum

(Article by Dr Alec MacKinnon:)

Charles Thomson Rees (“CTR”) Wilson was the first Scot to win the Nobel Prize in Physics – still the only one if we choose to be picky about land of birth. Archive Services has a fascinating collection of Wilson items, donated to the University in 1995 by his daughter Jessie. I recently had the privilege of looking through some of this material. On 17th March I’m giving a Hunterian Insight talk, “CTR Wilson, Scotland’s First Physics Nobel Prize Winner”. These short (ten minute) lunchtime talks are open to anybody – click here for a full list. For my talk we’ll have a couple of the Archives items to hand.

Cloud chamber photograph (Ref.: DC448/2/4/55)

Cloud chamber photograph (Ref.: DC448/2/4/55)

In the Insight talk I’ll discuss Wilson’s pioneering work, particularly the invention of the cloud chamber in which the paths of individual subatomic particles are made visible. We won’t have an actual cloud chamber to hand (although there is a beautiful demonstration one in the Glasgow Science Centre), but it will be just as interesting to have a couple of Wilson’s own, original cloud chamber photographs with us. There are a large number of these photos in the archive material, probably produced for public display in an exhibition in 1937. Especially in light of the current emphasis on “outreach”, it’s interesting to see that communication of scientific research to a wide audience has always been important to many scientists. For this purpose cloud chambers must have brought the sub-microscopic world into the realm of the visible in a quite unprecedented way.

Something I also consulted at Archive Services was a notebook of Wilson’s (archive reference: DC448/1/1), containing notes on several scientific experiments. I won’t have it with me at the talk, but it was fascinating to see a collection of handwritten notes on practical experiments, some little more than ideas, others described and carried out in some detail. Some years ago I discussed Wilson and the cloud chamber with a colleague from the Department of Physics and Astronomy who had done his PhD work at the beginninng of the 1960s. This was the moment when the cloud chamber was superseded by the bubble chamber so he must have been one of the very last cloud chamber PhDs. There was a nostalgic gleam in his eye: “that was the time when one man could still do fundamental research on the benchtop”. Much of this spirit comes across in Wilson’s notebook.

The Wilson collection held by Archive Services is summarised online and anybody who’s interested can contact them for a full catalogue.

So on 17th March I’ll take a look at the work done by this genius of experimental Physics, a man who never forgot his Scottish roots or lost his inspiration in the natural world. It will be a special thrill for me, and I hope the people who come along, to have some of these rare items from the Archives to hand.



Categories: Archive Services

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