Campaign to honour 'forgotten' Nobel laureate C T R Wilson

A campaign has been launched by Scottish scientists and MPs to honour Sidney alumnus and Fellow Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, the only Scottish winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics.

The group, reports Scotland on Sunday, are hoping to commemorate Wilson's achievements by having him featured on a Scottish bank note as 2011 sees the one hundreth anniversary of the publication by Wilson of work showing the tracks of subatomic particles in glass 'cloud chambers' or 'Wilson chambers'.

The work was carried out at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge, but Wilson was trained in Sidney's own lab, under the tutelage of Francis Henry Neville and E H Griffiths. Like Griffiths, Wilson came to Sidney via Owen's College in Manchester, taking a double first in natural sciences in 1892, before becoming a fellow of Sidney Sussex in 1900.

Having graduated from Sidney Wilson spent time at a now ruined laboratory near Ben Nevis. His time observing the formation of clouds was the inspiration for his subsequent scientific career. In an article published in 1959-60 he recalled, 'The whole of my scientific work undoubtedly developed from the experiments I was led to make by what I saw during my fortnight on Ben Nevis'.

 

The Sidney laboratory

Wilson returned to Cambridge in 1896-7, taking up the Clerk Maxwell scholarship at the famous Cavendish laboratory, where J J Thomson would discover the electron. There Wilson put into good use his training from Neville and Griffiths, designing his own cloud chambers which allowed him to study the formation of clouds and rain in controlled laboratory conditions. He observed the process by which water would condense on any charged nuclei in the chamber and photographed the tracks of tiny liquid droplets, which indicated the path of the radiation through the vapour. The work transformed experimental physics. Ernest Rutherford, credited with being the first scientist to 'split the atom', later said that the Wilson chamber was the most original apparatus in the history of physics. In 1927 Wilson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Richard Humphreys notes that Wilson was a quiet and modest man, who never lost his love for Scotland. He retired to Edinburgh where, at the age of 86, he joined meteorologists from Edinburgh University on a flight through the clouds. He died in 1959.

Sidney Sussex's natural science society is named in Wilson's honour.

The background to Wilson's life and work at Sidney is taken from Richard Humphreys' Sidney Sussex: A History. You can read more about Wilson's scientific achievements at the official Nobel Prize website. You can also read the text of Wilson's acceptance speech and watch a video of him and his wife Jessie arriving at their hotel in Stockholm in 1927.

This is an archived news story, first posted in 2011.

For further information please contact the Fellow Communications Officer, Dr Tom Lambert (FellowCommunicationsOfficer@sid.cam.ac.uk)

News item posted Sunday, 3rd May 2015

  • Part of the portrait of C T R Wilson, painted by James Gunn (1936)
  • Part of the portrait of C T R Wilson, painted by James Gunn (1936)