Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ernest T.S. Walton

Ireland has produced several Nobel prize winners but only one of them for a science discipline. Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton was born in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford on the 6th of October 1903. From an early age Ernest displayed an aptitude in mathematics and science. This great talent earned him a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin in 1922. By 1927 he had received a masters degree in physics and mathematics. In 1927 he was awarded a scholarship to attend Trinity College, Cambridge. There he worked as a research student under the great experimentalist Ernest Rutherford.

Ernest had arrived at physics as it had entered its golden age of discovery. It was the beginning of the adventure to probe the inner structure of the atom and within find the building blocks of all the matter we see around us. Walton was tasked with the design and building of an apparatus to aid this work. In 1929 Walton was joined by fellow student John Cockcroft. Together they developed a particle accelerator which could accelerate protons towards a target.

L-R: Cockcroft, Rutherford, Walton

Using this accelerator they bombarded a lithium sample with high energy protons. In April 1932 during one of these bombardments of a lithium target two alpha particles were detected. This was the first time a transmutation of an element was done under human control.

Here for the first time was experimental evidence for what would be the most famous equation in science E=mc2. In Einstein's mass-energy equivalence it stated that mass, m, times the speed of light, c, squared was equal to energy, E, in joules. This incredible simple equation would have a profound impact on the world in the years to come. In the Walton-Cockcroft experiment when the masses of the proton and lithium nucleus were compared to the masses of the two resulting alpha particles (helium nuclei) there was some mass 'missing'. The energy released in this transmutation when analyzed was found to be equivalent to the mass missing. For their work on this Walton and Cockcroft earned the Nobel prize in physics in 1951

By 1934 Walton had returned to Ireland as a fellow in Trinity College Dublin. In 1946 he was appointed to the prestigious position of Erasmus Smith's Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. He continued to lecturer as the head of the physics department at Trinity until his retirement in 1974. He is held in high regard for his elegant approach to teaching. It was said of him that he could make the most complex theories easily approachable for his students. Although retired he still frequented the corridors of Trinity for many years after. 

He was the recipient of several awards and honours during his career with the Nobel prize being the jewel in the crown. At the age of 91 Ernest Walton passed away on June 25th 1995. With his passing Waterford Insititude of Technology named its new state of the art IT building in his honour. 

I do not wish to put any negative comments in this piece about such a great man but I feel it is a great shame that we do not do more to honour more individuals such as Walton. For me he is one of the greatest Irish people and deserves all the admiration and more that he received.


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