William Henry Bragg




ENGLISH PHYSICIST
1862–1942

Sir William Henry Bragg was born on July 2, 1862, near Wigton in the northwest of England, the son of an officer in the merchant navy. He attended King William's College on the Isle of Man, before studying for the mathematical degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1884. Two years later he

English physicist Sir William Henry Bragg examining liquid oxygen at a 1936 science exhibition.
English physicist Sir William Henry Bragg examining liquid oxygen at a 1936 science exhibition.

was appointed professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. It was not until nearly twenty years later that Bragg began serious scientific research, concentrating first on α -particles and then x rays, in which he was critical of certain aspects of the then accepted theories on both. The significance of his work was such that it warranted his return to England, where he was appointed professor of physics at the University of Leeds in 1909. In 1912 to 1913, working with his son William Lawrence Bragg, a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, he discovered how to use x rays to determine the molecular structure of crystals. This turned out to be one of the key scientific discoveries of the twentieth century for which the two shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1915.

During World War I, Bragg moved to University College, London, and worked for the admiralty, developing the submarine detection systems ASDIC (Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) and SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging). After the war Bragg became disenchanted with University College, and following the death of James Dewar in 1923, he moved to the Royal Institution. There Bragg created a major British center for x-ray crystallography. The scientists at the laboratory established a distinctive approach to x-ray crystallography that later formed the basis of the British school of molecular biology. Bragg trained such figures as Kathleen Lonsdale, the first woman fellow of the Royal Society ), J. D. Bernal (who went to Birkbeck College), W. T. Astbury (University of Leeds), and, of course, William Henry Bragg's son, (William) Lawrence Bragg. The Braggs came to a tacit agreement that the work in the Royal Institution would concentrate on organic crystals, whereas Lawrence's independent efforts would explicitly focus on minerals.

Bragg, knighted for his work during World War I, played a major role in scientific popularization and administration during the interwar period. He was one of the earliest scientists to take advantage of the new medium of radio that he used to full effect to emphasize the value of science for society at large and for industry in particular. From 1935 to 1940 he served as president of the Royal Society, in which capacity he played a major role in helping scientists fleeing from fascist regimes to find employment, in establishing the committee that became the scientific advisory committee to the war cabinet, and in determining what scientific resources would be available for the looming conflict with Germany. During the blitz (the German bombing of London during World War II), the Royal Institution was a designated bomb shelter, and often Bragg would go down to the shelter at night to help boost the morale of people taking refuge there, actions for which he is still remembered. He died, in office, on March 10, 1942.

SEE ALSO Bragg, William Lawrence ; Dewar, James ; Lonsdale, Kathleen .

Frank A. J. L. James

Bibliography

Andrade, E. N. da C. (1943). "William Henry Bragg 1862–1942." Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 4:277–300.

Caroe, G. M. (1978). William Henry Bragg, 1862–1942. Man and Scientist. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Home, R. W. (1984). "The Problem of Intellectual Isolation in Scientific Life: W. H. Bragg and the Australian Scientific Community, 1886–1909." Historical Records of Australian Science 6:19–30.

Hughes, Jeff (2002). "Craftsmanship and Social Service: W. H. Bragg and the Modern Royal Institution." In "The Common Purposes of Life": Science and Society at the Royal Institution of Great Britain , ed. Frank A. J. L. James. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, pp. 225–247.

Jenkin, John (1986). The Bragg Family in Adelaide: A Pictorial Celebration. Adelaide, South Australia: University of Adelaide Foundation.

Quirke, Viviane (2002). "'A Big Happy Family': The Royal Institution under William and Lawrence Bragg and the History of Molecular Biology." In "The Common Purposes of Life": Science and Society at the Royal Institution of Great Britain , ed. Frank A. J. L. James. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, pp. 249–271.



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