George Paget Thomson Biography

(British Physicist Who Won the Nobel Prize in Physics for Discovering the Wave Properties of the Electron)

Birthday: May 3, 1892 (Taurus)

Born In: Cambridge, England, United Kingdom

George Paget Thomson was an English physicist, who shared the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physics with Clinton Joseph Davison, for their discovery of diffraction of electrons by crystals. Born in an academically distinguished family, he had his entire education at Cambridge, where his Nobel laureate father, J. J. Thomson, was a Professor of Experimental Physics. Although he joined Corpus Christi College after completing his studies he soon abandoned it to join Britain’s war effort as the First World War broke out. However, he spent much of his time working on aerodynamics trying to improve stability of airplanes. Later he resigned from his commission to rejoin the Corpus Christi College, but soon shifted to the University of Aberdeen, where he undertook major experiments and discovered electron diffraction. Later he turned his attention to nuclear physics and when uranium fission was discovered, he was struck by its potential for military use. During the Second World War, he became the Chairman of the MAUD committee. Later he went to Ottawa as the Scientific Liaison Officer and worked closely with the Manhattan Project. After the war, he joined Imperial College, where he started probing into the possibility of manufacturing nuclear power from deuterium. He retired as the Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Quick Facts

British Celebrities Born In May

Also Known As: Sir George Paget Thomson

Died At Age: 83


father: Joseph John Thomson

mother: Rose Elisabeth Paget

siblings: Joan Paget Thomson

Quotes By George Paget Thomson Physicists

Died on: September 10, 1975

place of death: Cambridge, England, United Kingdom

Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Physics

City: Cambridge, England

More Facts

education: Trinity College, Cambridge

awards: 1937 - Nobel Prize in Physics
1939 - Hughes Medal
1960 - Faraday Medal

Childhood & Early Life
George Paget Thomson was born on May 3, 1892 in Cambridge, England. His father, Sir Joseph John Thomson, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of electron. At the time of George’s birth Thomson (Sr.) was working as a Professor of Experimental Physics in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge.
George’s mother, Rose Elisabeth Paget, also came from an academically distinguished family. Her father, Sir George Edward Paget, was a physician and Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge. In addition, she was also a student of physics at Cambridge.
Apart from George, couple had another child, a daughter named Joan Paget Thomson. She was almost eleven years junior to him and so he was effectively the only child for long.
George had his secondary education at The Perse School in Cambridge. In school, George developed a passion for boats. While he was still a boy, he made working models of boats and submarines, which he used to float on pools. He also made cannons and cartridges.
After passing out from school, he entered Trinity College in 1910. There, he studied mathematics for first two years and took up physics in the third year. After graduation, he entered Cavendish Laboratory for his post graduate degree and finally passed out in 1914.
In 1911, George started his research on charged fragments of molecules under his father’s guidance. Besides, he was fortunate enough to come in close contact with many well-known scientists like Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, W. L. Bragg and his father W. H. Bragg. He was especially interested in Braggs’ theory about X-ray.
Immediately after passing out in 1914, George was appointed as a lecturer in mathematics at Corpus Christi College. Unfortunately, the First World War broke out soon after and George was commissioned into the Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment.
At that time, the regiment was stationed at France. After serving there for a brief period, George Paget Thomson joined Royal Flying Corps at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough to work on aerodynamics. His contribution to aeronautics earned him Smith Prize in 1916.
Later he was shifted to other bases, where he continued to work on different aerodynamic problems. He also spent nine months in the USA as part of the British Mission.
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In 1920, George Pager Thomson resigned from his commission as a captain and rejoined Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as Fellow and Lecturer. Along with teaching, he also concentrated on research work. However, his major works were done at Aberdeen.
He joined University of Aberdeen as Professor of Natural Philosophy (Physics in Scotland is known as Natural Philosophy), in 1922 and served in this position till 1930. While working there, he carried on experiments on electrons, which his father, Sir J. J. Thomson had identified as particles.
In 1927, George Paget Thomson found that the electrons could be diffracted like a wave. He had them moved through very thin films of metals and found that in spite of being particles, electrons behaved as waves. Later this behavior came to be known as ‘electron diffraction’ and earned him Nobel Prize.
In 1929 and 1930, Thomson worked as a non resident lecturer at the Conwell University, New York. Then in 1930, he joined Imperial College, London. Here too he continued his experiment on electrons. It led to the development of electron microscope.
At the same time, Thomson started taking interest in nuclear physics. When the process for fission of uranium was discovered in the beginning of 1939, he became more interested in its military use. He then persuaded the British Air Ministry to procure one ton uranium oxide; but the Second World War broke out before he could complete his experiment.
During the war, Thomson started working for the Royal Aircraft Establishment. He was asked to look into a series of problems faced by the military; magnetic mine was one among them.
When the Military Application of Uranium Detonation (MAUD) Committee was formed in 1940 to look into the feasibility of making an atomic bomb, Thomson was appointed as his Chairman. In 1941, the Committee concluded that such bombs were feasible.
Thomson next went to the United States and handed over the report to the American scientists Vannevar Bush and James Conant. He spent the next year at Ottawa, functioning as the Scientific Liaison Officer and remained in touch with the Manhattan Project, which was entrusted with the task of manufacturing the atomic bomb.
Thomson returned to England in the following year. He was first appointed as the Vice-Chairman of the Radio Board. Later he became Scientific Adviser to the Air Ministry.
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Once the war concluded in 1945, Thomson returned to Imperial College. In early 1946, his attention was turned to heavy hydrogen, technically known as deuterium. He began to probe into the feasibility of manufacturing nuclear power from it. However, his work on this topic was mainly theoretical.
Later on, the project was shifted to Associated Electrical Industry's Research Laboratories at Aldermaston because of security reasons. Even then, Thomson continued as one of the consultants.
He left imperial College in 1952 to become the Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He retired from there in 1962.
Major Works
Although Thomson had worked on various projects his work on diffraction of electrons is the most important one. It proved the principle of ‘wave-particle duality’ as proposed by French Physicist Louis de Broglie. Such discovery made examination of the atomic structure of solid surfaces feasible.
George Paget Thomson also wrote a number of books. Among them, ‘Theory and Practice of Electron Diffraction’ (1939), ‘The Atom and The Foreseeable Future’ (1955), ‘The Inspiration of Science’ (1962) and ‘J.J. Thomson and the Cavendish Laboratory in His Day’ (1965) are especially noteworthy.
Awards & Achievements
In 1937, George Paget Thomson was awarded Nobel Prize in Physics for his experimental discovery of diffraction of electrons. However, he had to share this prize with American Physicist Clinton Joseph Davison, who had come to the same conclusion using a different method more or less at the same ime.
In addition, he was a Fellow of the ‘Royal Society’ and received the Society’s Hughes Medal in 1939 and Royal Medal in 1949. He was also knighted in 1943.
Personal Life & Legacy
George Paget Thomson married Kathleen Buchanan Smith in 1924.The couple had four children; two sons and two daughters. Kathleen died in 1941.
His eldest son, John Adam Thomson, was a United Nations diplomat while his younger son, David Paget Thomson, was a businessman.
Thomson died a natural death on September 10, 1975, in Cambridge, England, at the age of 83.
During the First World War George Paget Jonson joined Royal Flying Corps. Though he learned to fly he was not a good pilot. According to his sons, he crashed three planes and kept their number plates as mementos. He mainly worked on aerodynamics.
Although he shared his Nobel Prize with American Physicist Clinton Joseph Davison, the two scientists worked independently and did not know about each other’s experiment.

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