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Thomson, Sir George Paget

bomb war electrons diffraction

(1892–1975) British physicist: discovered experimentally the interference (diffraction) of electrons by atoms in crystals.

G P Thomson, the only son of , had an outstanding college career. He survived the first year of the First World War in the infantry and in 1915 was attached to the Royal Flying Corps to work on problems of aircraft stability. In 1919 he returned to Cambridge, working first in his father’s field of positive rays. He then went to the University of Aberdeen, being appointed to a professorship there at the age of 30. With his student Alex Reid he observed (in 1927) electron diffraction of electrons passing through thin celluloid film or metal foil, recorded on photographic plates as concentric rings of varying intensity about the incident beam. While not undertaken for that purpose they recognized the experiment as confirming postulate of wave-particle duality. Thomson received the 1937 Nobel Prize for physics jointly with , who had also achieved diffraction of electrons but by use of a nickel crystal rather than a metal foil.

In 1930 Thomson moved to Imperial College, London. By 1939 he was aware of the possibility of a uranium fission bomb being developed, very possibly by Germany. During the Second World War he chaired the Maud Committee, advising the British Government on the atomic bomb, and in July 1941 reported that such a bomb could be made using separated uranium-235. The co-ordinating role on the bomb project then passed to , while Thomson became scientific advisor to Canada, and then in 1943 to the Air Ministry in Britain. After the war, in 1952, he returned to Cambridge as Master of Corpus Christi College. Always known as ‘GP’, he had considerable intuition in physics. Widely liked and good company, his life-long enthusiasms were sailing and model boats, which he made himself, including their armament; he was particularly pleased with his working model submarines.

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