Wilson of the Cloud Chamber – broadcast in 1959

Posted: December 12, 2020 by oldbrew in atmosphere, Clouds, innovation, physics

Nobel prize-winning physicist CTR Wilson

‘Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, CH, FRS (14 February 1869 – 15 November 1959) was a Scottish physicist and meteorologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the cloud chamber.
. . .
The invention of the cloud chamber was by far Wilson’s signature accomplishment, earning him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1927. The Cavendish laboratory praised him for the creation of “a novel and striking method of investigating the properties of ionized gases”. The cloud chamber allowed huge experimental leaps forward in the study of subatomic particles and the field of particle physics, generally. Some have credited Wilson with making the study of particles possible at all.’ — Wikipedia.

A potted biography, including cloud chamber images and a diagram of the global atmospheric electrical circuit, can be found here.

The link to the broadcast script is below the introduction.
– – –


Our historical scientific instrument collection at the University of Aberdeen includes more than just instruments, for there are in addition instrument catalogues and manuals, invoices, photographs, slides, reprints of papers and drafts of talks, notebooks, in fact a selection of paraphernalia that one would expect to accompany University teaching and research. It is of course all relevant to staff interests over the decades and indeed the centuries.

One area of staff interest has been atmospheric physics, from the low atmosphere of meteorology to upper atmospheric phenomena such as noctilucent clouds, the aurora and night-glow.

Included in the collection are photographs, slides and papers at one time belonging to C T R Wilson, of whom I used to say he was the only Scot to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics. In 2016 he was joined by Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless.

This material nicely complements the Balfour Stewart Collection of documents relevant to atmospheric physics held in the University archives. (As well as the overlapping of scientific interest, Balfour Stewart had taught Wilson at Owens College, Manchester).

C T R Wilson is still famous for the invention of his cloud chamber and the discovery that it can be used to display ion tracks created by subatomic particles, enabling the particles themselves to be identified.

The cloud chamber proved to be a key tool that led to other Nobel Prizes and helped unlock the mechanisms involved when ionising radiation dissipates its energy.

We have in our collection two small cloud chambers made for teaching purposes and the kind of instruments that CTR would have used for his work on atmospheric electricity, such as a Dolezalek electrometer by the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Co.

Our own Nobel Prize winning physicist, G P Thomson, was a student of Wilson’s in Cambridge, which adds interest to the radio interview given by C T R Wilson for the Home Service that reviewed his life and work.

The following is the script of the programme, courtesy of his daughter, the late Jessie Wilson, in which CTR on the occasion of his 90th birthday describes his own life and work.

Later that year he wrote a more extensive ‘reminiscences of my early years’, covering the period up to 1900, that were published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society, vol. 14, No.2, pp 163-173, 1960.

He was interviewed for a second programme, for the BBC European Service, for which we also have a transcript. He died in November 1959.

John S. Reid
– – –
Wilson of the Cloud Chamber – BBC Broadcast 1959

  1. oldbrew says:

    Cosmic rays and water droplets – from the interview script:

    Now just at this time Röntgen discovered X-rays, so C.T.R. exposed the air in
    the Chamber to these rays. With a sudden expansion he now got a dense cloud,
    instead of a few droplets. The reason? The X-rays were producing a multitude
    of ions in the air in the chamber – each of them serving as a nucleus for a water

    Also: But it’s for his Cloud Chamber that Wilson will always be remembered – an
    instrument that was used in laboratories all over the world. In particular one of
    his students, Professor Blackett (now Professor of Physics at Imperial College,
    London) has developed and adapted the Wilson Cloud Chamber to examine and
    make far reaching discoveries in cosmic rays.

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