CTR Wilson, the Ben Nevis Observatory, Cosmic Rays
The May, 2003 issue of Astronomy
Now magazine included an article I wrote on CTR Wilson, the Ben
Nevis Observatory (BNO) and Wilson's role at the inception of the study of
cosmic rays. People in various parts of Scotland have heard me speak on these
topics, or come across our Cosmic Way roadshow. Here are some resources and links that may interest anybody who
enjoyed that story.
Resources I made
- Here's a slightly different retelling of
the Wilson/BNO/cosmic ray story, a little bit lengthier and more
'popular', as well as much plainer looking (pdf format).
- Ben Nevis (flat summit to the left) and
Carn Mor Dearg from the south:
(click for a
- Electron cloud chamber tracks may be simulated using almost the method
that Ian Craig and I described, for a different purpose, in 1991
Here's a little movie (animated GIF - 2.2 MB) showing
simulated tracks of 25 electrons. They all start out travelling vertically
upwards, with the same speed, but each has a unique history of collisions with
atoms and they follow increasingly different paths as they slow down. The colours
don't mean anything, they just make it easier to see the separate paths.
- Wilson spent his first few years at the foot of Castlelaw
- in a certain sense the first ever experiment in cosmic ray physics was carried out in a railway tunnel near Peebles
Wilson and cloud chamber
- The Institute of Physics places
blue plaques to commemorate the lives and work of well-known physicists.
There is one for Wilson, at Flotterstone in the Pentland Hills, a
short distance from his birthplace.
- Wilson was inspired to study the formation of water droplets in
air by seeing the Brocken Spectre from Ben Nevis' summit while working
at the Ben Nevis Observatory in September, 1894. Glories, the Brocken
Spectre, and a host of other glows in the sky are
beautifully illustrated and discussed in Les Cowley's website devoted
- Wilson conceived and perfected the cloud chamber at the Cavendish
Laboratory in Cambridge University. Cambridge has put excellent physics outreach
resources online, including a section devoted to the cloud chamber with some original Wilson cloud chamber photographs.
- The Nobel Foundation has
an excellent website with lots of information about all Nobel
Prize winners. The autobiographical notes by more recent winners alone are
fascinating. Wilson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927
(shared with A H Compton), and the
for that year includes a biography and his own Nobel Lecture,
an overview of the development and employment of the cloud chamber
told in a very nice narrative style.
- Also present there is the text of the short, charming
speech he made at
the Nobel Prize banquet. This seems to me to encapsulate key,
distinctive aspects of his story: penetrating insights rooted
in a love of the natural world, the role of accidents of place and
personality in science. The 'other Scottish hill' he
mentions was Carn Mor Dearg, Ben Nevis' eastern neighbour, and this
incident took place in the summer of 1895.
- Anybody interested in science and its progress will find lots to
interest them on the Nobel Foundation site, but for present purposes
we should of course highlight Victor Hess, the Austrian scientist who
first demonstrated the
existence of penetrating radiation from the wider cosmos. Hess
shared the Physics
Nobel Prize in 1936. A
biography of Hess is available at the website of the
a present-day cosmic ray experiment.
- NASA website devoted to cosmic rays with lots of news items, topical articles, etc.: Cosmicopia
Ben Nevis and Observatory
- The Scottish Antarctic explorer William Speirs Bruce spent some time
on the summit of Ben Nevis, evidently in much harsher, winter conditions than
those Wilson would have experienced. A website devoted to
Scotland and the
a page briefly telling the story of the BNO.
- Ben Nevis is now owned by the John
Muir Trust. Their website
includes a section devoted
to Ben Nevis.
- Marjory Roy's book, Weathermen of Ben Nevis tells the tale
of the BNO very nicely, making excellent use of contemporary photographs.
It used to be available directly from the website of the
Royal Meteorological Society but seems to have disappeared. Second-hand copies are available on Amazon.co.uk but at significant expense. I'm amazed this valuable book would go out of print!
Little Earth, a project of London Fieldworks, combined twinning ceremonies between Ben Nevis (Scotland) and Mount Haldde (Norway), and a video installation
premiered in London in January 2005 and subsequently shown in Fort William. Mount Haldde was the site of another
mountaintop observatory, established by Kristian Birkeland for the
study of the aurora. The rather tragic tale of Birkeland and his observatory
are told in Lucy Jago's book, The Northern Lights.
interview with her gives a nice peek at the book and story. Little Earth uses these two contrasting characters,
their key locations and achievements to 'create an audio-visual poem
reflecting upon how the "last of the natural philosophers" became the
first of the big scientists.'
- A curiosity perhaps, in this context, but one that I at least enjoy: the
American composer Harry Partch invented many new musical instruments
to support his microtonal music, constructed in a 43-tone scale that implements
Cloud chamber bowls
used tops and bottoms cut from large Pyrex flasks, intended originally for use in the construction
of cloud chambers in the Radiation Laboratory of the University of California
(now Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). More
on Harry Partch is at Corporeal Meadows and
also a page on cloud chamber bowls
particularly. One website even lets you
play a set of cloud chamber bowls.
MacKinnon; 28 February 2014