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William Lawrence Bragg and Crystallography

The history of modern Crystallography is intertwined with the great discoveries’ of William Lawrence Bragg (WLB), still renowned to be the youngest Nobel Prize in Physics. Bragg received news of his Nobel Prize on the 14th November 1915 in the midst of the carnage of the Great War. This was to be shared with his father William Henry Bragg (WHB), and WHB and WLB are to date the only father and son team to be jointly awarded the Nobel Prize. Experiments made in early 1912 by a German team working under the physicist Max Laue, had shown that X-rays could be scattered by a crystal, but they could not quite explain their results in full. It was WLB, at the age of 22 years, who worked out how to interpret their results and how to determine the atomic structures of crystalline solids for the first time. Father and son subsequently continued to work together, solving many crystal structures, including that of common salt and diamond, until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Following the war, both WLB and WHB set up renowned research groups devoted to Crystallography, producing ever more important discoveries that have led to over 26 Nobel Prizes.

WLB came from a middle-class family originating in Cumbria. He was brought up initially in Adelaide, Australia but then moved to England with his parents in 1906, where he was further educated in Cambridge. It was there that he met his wife-to-be, Alice Grace Jenny Hopkinson. She came from a totally different background, one related to the aristocracy and even to royalty. Unlike WLB, Alice had no understanding of science and was of a very different personality. He was shy, private, given to periods of depression, and intensely focussed on his research. Nonetheless he had many outside interests too; bird-watching, gardening, travelling, and especially sketching and painting, and was devoted to his family. It may be that it was this artistic bent, with his keen visual acuity, that enabled WLB at such a young age to succeed where the German scientists had failed, for Crystallography is both a mathematical and visual science. He was certainly not a member of the establishment. Alice, on the other hand, was lively, outgoing and forthright in expressing her opinions. And yet, despite these huge differences, they formed a love-match that persisted throughout all their lives together.

William Lawrence Bragg, by Nobel foundation. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The story about WLB and his discoveries, his scientific achievements, especially those leading to many Nobel Prizes, have been well documented. However little has been made known about Alice. Fortunately, both left behind hitherto unpublished autobiographies, which reveal much about their personalities and the events that shaped their lives.

WLB’s account begins with his early years in Australia, his move to England and his famous discovery, followed by his close involvement in his work during Wold War I, where his experiments on sound-ranging enabled the enemy guns to be located with some precision. This is described in much detail. His autobiography is accompanied by many of his sketches made during his extensive travels, and he describes the many famous people whom he met and with whom he worked. Alice’s autobiography gives much detail about her early family members, some of whom were part of the German upper classes. She describes their personalities as well as their idiosyncrasies. After her marriage to WLB, she immersed herself in public duties, becoming Mayor of Cambridge, and Chair of the Marriage Guidance Council, among many other activities. She is particularly revealing about her attitudes to certain individuals within the Royal Society, who shunned her husband after he took over the Directorship of the Royal Institution following a rancorous affair that ended with the ousting of the previous Director. She has interesting comments to make too over WLB’s controversial willingness to write a Foreword to James Watson’s famous book, The Double Helix (read  Kersten Hall’s blog post about William Asbury, James Watson and the forgotten road to the Double Helix), in which WLB was compared unflatteringly to Colonel Blimp. Watson has since claimed that it was Lady Bragg who persuaded her husband to write this, but in her autobiography she makes it clear that it was WLB’s decision alone.

WLB will be remembered, not only for his scientific research, but also for his impact on the many schoolchildren who attended his Schools’ Lectures at the Royal Institution. Approximately 20,000 children attended each year over a ten year period. These lectures were filled with amazing practical demonstrations covering all areas of science. WLB used to say that he wanted to show science to children.

WLB and his father can truly be said to have transformed all our lives, for their work has enabled us to understand the structures of metals, organic and inorganic compounds, pharmaceuticals, proteins, viruses, and just about everything that exists in solid form. It is interesting to speculate what the world would look like had WLB not made his discovery so long ago.

Featured image credit: Advanced Theoretical Physics, by Marvin (PA). CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr.

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