Physicist, discoverer of the Neutron
1891 – 1974
Bollington is known for its generations of hard working people who collectively created this corner of the cotton industry with perhaps only Samuel Greg being nationally notable by name for his contribution. But there was one son of Bollington whose brilliant mind undoubtedly changed the course of world history – James Chadwick.
Chadwick became this country’s leading physicist in the 1920s and 30s whose discovery of the neutron, a component of the atom, lead to the atomic bomb becoming a practical possibility. This discovery has been marked by some as the most significant scientific discovery of the twentieth century. 2007 marked the 75th anniversary of his experiment to prove the existence of the neutron, which he carried out at Cambridge in 1932. He was awarded the Nobel prize for Physics in 1935 and, in 1945, a knighthood for this work.
He was born in a cottage in Clarke Lane and went to Bollington Cross school, where today a blue plaque (right) reminds us of his origins and achievement. His father was a cotton weaver and his grandfather a hand loom silk weaver. The study of Physics was a bit of a mistake on his part – when this brilliant scholar went to enrol at Manchester University, aged only 16, he intended to take mathematics but stood in the wrong queue! He was too shy to admit his mistake but, I believe, after a shaky start he never regretted it.
He studied under Professor Ernest Rutherford in Manchester and Hans Geiger in Berlin. There he met Albert Einstein before being arrested and interned by the Germans in 1914 at the age of 23 for the duration of the war. After the war he went to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, then run by Rutherford, where he carried out his most important and significant research. During WWII he was Britain’s principle scientist working at Los Alamos in the United States as part of the Manhattan project which resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb.
After WWII, in 1948, he retired from active physics and became Master of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, retiring in 1959. He continued for a short time as a member of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.
In June 2007 it was disclosed that in 1941 Chadwick was so concerned that papers by two French physicists should not fall into enemy hands that he had them sealed and stored by the Royal Society. These were opened at a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron and they were found to concern the design of a nuclear fission reactor and ways of initiating a chain reaction – a subject still being worked on today.
The author acknowledges the following sources …
- Nobel prize, James Chadwick, biography
- Nobel winners, biography
- The Existence of a Neutron, Nature, 10 May 1932, James Chadwick
- Discovery of the neutron, general chemistry case studies
- Wikipedia entry for James Chadwick
- Sealed documents stored with the Royal Society
- Biography: The Neutron and the Bomb, Andrew Brown, Oxford 1997
- Review of the above biography: The Accidental Physicist, New Scientist, 12 July 1997
- Biography: Bio-graphical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. XX, Sir Harrie Massey and N. Feather, 1976