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> The Life and Work of Ernest Walton Issue: 2007-1 Section: Science



The concept of humans controlling the building blocks of nature, being able to take some of its awesome power and transforming it to something we can command was no more than a theoretical concept at the dawning of the last century. Due to the inspirational efforts of some pioneering scientists however, these theories began to be realised, opening the floodgates for a new era of discovery. One such scientist was Ernest T. S. Walton, who is seen by many as one of sciences true heroes.

It all began in Dungarvan, a town on the south east coast of Ireland, when, on the 6th of October 1903, Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton was born. His mothers name was Anne E. Sinton and his father, John Walton, was a Methodist minister.

They had to move every few years however due to the ministry. As a result, young Ernest found himself at the other end of Ireland for his school days, attending day schools in Cambridge (Co. Down) and Cookstown (Co. Tyrone).

His mathematical and scientific brilliance really began to shine through while he was a boarder at the Methodist College in Belfast.

His college years took off, when in 1922 he went to Trinity College, Dublin on a scholarship, and after four years he graduated with first class honours in maths and experimental physics.

The following year, as Ernest Walton was receiving a M.Sc, degree, saw the continuation of one of the most exciting and significant eras in the history of physics.

There was Rutherford’s compelling discovery of the miniscule atomic nucleus in 1910, followed by Niels Bohr’s revelation of how electrons orbit the nucleus in 1913, as well as Heisenberg’s, Dirac’s, and Schrödinger’s further description of atoms and sub-atomic particles in 1925 and 1926, to name but a few.

By 1927, the momentum continued to build, as much of the research seemed to converge on the atomic nucleus.

What scientists all over the world were racing to do, was to disassemble the nucleus to peer inside, the best way to do this being to strike it with a fast moving tiny particle, almost like a bullet shattering a vase.


Walton at Cambridge

That very year, Ernest Walton set sail for Cambridge University, famous for its scientists, boasting such names as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and more recently, Stephen Hawking. Walton soon found himself working under the previously mentioned and ever eminent Lord Rutherford.

There, Walton’s first job was to build an apparatus designed to accelerate electrons (negatively charged particles) to very high speeds. Even though Ernest poured his flowing ingenuity into the project, and there was some success, the electrons did not quite reach the speeds desired.

Then in 1929, he began the development of a new apparatus to accelerate positively charged particles to high speeds. For this he was joined by Sir J.D. Cockcroft, another superb scientist with a boundless scientific capacity.


Sir J.D Cockcroft

The following is a very brief note about Cockcroft; Sir John Douglas Cockcroft was born on May the 27th 1897, to a family of traditionally cotton manufacturers at Todmorden, England.

He served in World War 1 after studying mathematics, and afterwards returned to study electrical engineering.

It was not long before he too fortuitously found himself at Cambridge, also working under Lord Rutherford in the Cavendish Laboratory.

You may be interested to know that following his work with Walton, he worked on radar research, and he also worked in Canada and the U.S. for a time. He was married and had five children.

He was the deserving recipient of many awards and honours in his later life.

Reversing back to 1932, we find ourselves in a year where the seeds of years of hard work and meticulous experimentation finally flourished to fruition. That year saw James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron, Carl Anderson’s discovery of the positron, Fermi’s announcement of his theory of radioactive Beta decay, and of course, Ernest Walton’s and J.D. Cockcroft’s splitting of the atom.


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