Pro­fes­sor Ernest Walton re­acted with typ­i­cal mod­esty when in­formed of his recog­ni­tion for work on the atom

Belfast Telegraph - - NATIONAL/INTERNATIO­NAL -

For a man who helped push back the fron­tiers of physics, Pro­fes­sor Ernest Thomas Sin­ton Walton was dis­arm­ingly mod­est. When he was told in Novem­ber 1951 that he was about to be named as a joint win­ner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, he replied sim­ply: “If it’s true, I shall be the most sur­prised per­son in the coun­try.”

His ac­co­lade was shared with fel­low sci­en­tist Sir John Cockcroft and was in recog­ni­tion of the pair’s pi­o­neer­ing work in split­ting an atom us­ing high ten­sion elec­tric bom­bard­ment in 1932. Their achieve­ment fol­lowed di­rectly on from that of Sir Ernest Ruther­ford, who had suc­cess­fully split the atom in 1919.

How­ever, Walton and Cockcroft took the work one stage fur­ther, demon­strat­ing that not only could the atom be split, it could also be dis­in­te­grated by bom­bard­ment with al­pha par­ti­cles. The son of a Methodist min­is­ter, Walton was born in Dun­gar­van, Co Water­ford, in 1903, and was ed­u­cated at Ban­bridge Academy and Cook­stown Academy be­fore at­tend­ing Methodist Col­lege in Belfast. There his aca­demic bril­liance flour­ished and in 1922 he was awarded the Ar­magh County Schol­ar­ship to at­tend Trin­ity Col­lege in Dublin.

Five years of dis­tin­guished work in nu­clear physics at Trin­ity brought him to the at­ten­tion of Ruther­ford and he was sum­moned to Cam­bridge, where he worked with Cockcroft un­der Sir Ernest for seven years.

Walton’s achieve­ments were car­ried out at a time when some sci­en­tists were al­ready ques­tion­ing where de­vel­op­ments in nu­clear physics were head­ing.

De­spite his fears about the mis­use of nu­clear tech­nol­ogy, Walton was adamant about the value of his life’s work. “I be­lieve we ought to know more and not less about th­ese fun­da­men­tal things in the world around us,” he said in 1960.

Walton died at his home in Dublin in 1995 at the age of 92.

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