Atomic firsts

George Paget Thomson was the son of J.J. Thomson and, like his father, was a highly talented and brilliant man. After receiving a first class honours degree in Mathematics and Physics, he went on to do research and teaching. He aided the government in exploring the possible uses of fission for the war effort. He was also interested in nuclear fusion, the process which makes the sun shine.

Thomson’s most famous experiment was one that proved an earlier theory developed by Lois de Broglie in 1924. This was that electrons had wave-like properties.

During the middle of the 1920s he carried out a series of experiments using an apparatus called an electron diffraction camera. This instrument is now on display in the Science Museum. With it he bombarded very thin metal and celluloid foils with a narrow electron beam. The beam was then scattered into a series of rings.

Using these results, Thomson proved mathematically that the particles were acting like waves. The process of electron diffraction, which his experiments established, has been widely used in the investigation of the surfaces of solids. This was a direct development of the work begun by his father with the discovery of the electron.

For these achievements Thomson like his father before, won the Nobel Prize for Physics, which he shared with C.J. Davisson in 1937.


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