METHODY MAN WINS NOBEL PHYSICS PRIZE
Professor Ernest Walton reacted with typical modesty when informed of his recognition for work on the atom
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.