Science in Christian Perspective


Raymond J. Seeger
(NSF Retired)
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, Maryland 20816

From: PSCF 38 (June 1986): 131-132.

It so happened that my first graduate course was given by one of the early (after 1895) research students at the Cavendish Laboratory. I asked the professor to give a talk to young people on "My Religion as a Physicist." He replied, "Although I attend church regularly, I just don't talk about it." He was following in the footsteps of his mentor, J. J. Thomson.

Joseph John Thomson was born December 18th, 1856, in Cheetham Hill, a Manchester suburb. His father, Joseph James, a bookseller and publisher, died when he was sixteen. His mother, Emma Swindells, lived until 1901. He and his brother, Frederick Vernon (younger by two years), used to spend their summer holidays with her. At thirty-four, he himself married, in the church of St. Mary the Less, a sometime physics student, Rose Elizabeth Paget, daughter of the Regius Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge. They had two children, George Paget and Joan Paget. Their home became a social center-at first breakfast parties, later teas, finally dinners-all more a duty than a pleasure.

At fourteen, intending to become an engineer, he entered Owens College (Manchester University, 1880). There he studied with Osborne Reynolds and Balfour Stewart, who sparked his interest in physics. (He received awards in mathematics and engineering at the ages of sixteen and eighteen; he had no chemistry.) At twenty he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained first a minor scholarship and sizarship, then a major scholarship, and finally an Exhibition. Four years later he became a Second Wrangler and Smith Prizeman; in the same year he received his degree and a fellowship at Trinity where for two years he taught eighteen hours per week. At twenty-six he received the Adams Prize for his essay on vortex rings. The next year he became Professor of Experimental Physics at Cavendish, succeeding the third Lord Rayleigh, who had resigned. (He was naturally clumsy with his hands and always had to have laboratory assistants.)

His whole life was one of great devotion to Trinity. In 19 18 he was appointed its Master by the Crown, and in 1919 he resigned his professorship (Ernest Rutherford succeeded him), at which time he became an unsalaried professor. As an administrator, he was never very businesslike and only occasionally punctual in his correspondence (he never had a full-time secretary). Nevertheless, his interest in research and personal enthusiasm helped to develop one of the great physics centers of all time.

At twenty-six he published his first paper in the Philosophical Magazine (on the mass increase of a moving electric charge). The year following he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. Not until 1893, however, did he become interested in the discharge of electricity through rarefied gases; he included a chapter on it in his "Researches on Electricity and Magnetism," a sequel to Clerk Maxwell's "Treatise" (1873). He encountered intrinsic difficulties with cathode rays (J. PRicker 1859). The latter, however, were minimized with the discovery of ionization produced by X-rays (W. C. R6ntgen 1895). He and Rutherford produced a fundamental paper regarding this in 1896. The peak of his scientific career came in 1897-98, when he measured e/. (e charge, m mass) for "corpuscles" in cathode rays, from photo-electricity, and from thermo-electricity. Obtaining approximately the same values in each case, he identified the charge with the unit suggested by H. L. F. Helmholtz (1881), named "electron" by G. J. Stoney (1891), and used by J. Larmor (1894). Having determined e statistically, he concluded that m was approximately I/iom the mass of a hydrogen atom. In 1903 he published a book on "The Conduction of Electricity in Gases." Two years later he began work on positive rays (E. Goldstein 1886), which provided a new method of separating different kinds of atoms and molecules with respect to their masses (cf. his book "Rays of Positive Electricity," 1913). In 1906 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the conduction of electricity through gases.

A diligent researcher, Thomson was also an inspiring teacher. Although himself a mathematician, he preferred to employ intuitive visualization. For him theory was a policynot a creed. He emphasized the educational value of reasonable research (advanced laboratory work, he feared, was often more difficult than research itself), and he regretted the lengthy preparation of abstruse, detailed exam questions. He deplored the ever increasing text-book load, which retained the traditional old texts while introducing the more exciting new ones. With regard to curriculum, he objected to the emphasis on learning classics at the expense of science, and preferred small classes led by an intelligent and enthusiastic teacher to larger more formal settings. Typically he shunned noisy conferences in preference to quiet reading although in 1893 he did organize the Cavendish Physical Society, a colloquium.

He himself was an excellent lecturer: he spoke clearly and audibly, and punctuated his lectures with numerical illustrations, citations from the history of science, and a few novel demonstrations. At forty he gave the Rede lecture at Cambridge, at fifty-eight the Romanes lecture at Oxford.

Thomson received many honors. In 1905 he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Instutution. In 1919 he was made a member of the original University Grants Committee, and in 1921, President of the new Institute of Physics. He received twenty-two honorary doctorates (I I generic, 5 in law, 4 in science, 2 in philosophy), including the LL.D. from Princeton and Johns Hopkins and the D.Sc. from Columbia. His fourteen medals included three from the Royal Society (Copley, Hughes, Royal). He was President of the Royal Society, the British Association, the Cambridge Philosophical Society, the Faraday Society, the Junior Institution of Engineers, the Physical Society of London, and of the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux. He was knighted in 1908 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1912. He died on August 30th, 1940, and was buried in Westminster Abbey near Newton and Rutherford.

J. J. had a diversified interest in people and life per se. Modest himself, he liked meeting all of the undergraduates, not just the clever ones. He enjoyed reading wholesome novels and good mysteries. Often he would be the only spectator from his own college to attend an intercollegiate Rugby match. He was a versatile conversationalist, who could talk on almost any subject barring music. He gave lively lectures which were more anecdotal than didactic, and preferred to arouse enthusiasm in his students than to merely impart knowledge. He was always accessible and hospitable, never seeming to be in a hurry, and was noted for his tact and kindness to his staff. He loved children and his family, and provided well for them in that he left a considerable fortune (albeit only one patent). Appreciation for the beauty of the natural world was not lost upon him, and he was wont to recommend scenery to young people. He liked flower gardens, and in his old age he mused that he would have liked to have been a botanist, perhaps a plant physiologist.

Like many of his countrymen, J. J. was reserved about his religion. He did not join his mother and brother in devoting much energy to parochial church work. The Masters of Trinity prior to him had all been in religious orders. As a professor, however, he did attend the Sunday evening college chapel service, and as Master, the morning service. He was a regular communicant in the Anglican Church. In addition, he showed an active interest in the Trinity Mission at Camberwell. With respect to his private devotional life, J. J. would invariably practice kneeling for daily prayer, and read his Bible before retiring each night. He truly was a practicing Christian!