Splitting the atom, setting the pace


Celebrations are planned to mark the centenary of the birth of Ireland's only Nobel science laureate, Ernest Walton. Dick Ahlstrom reports

Being the first person in the world to split an atom might seem like a guaranteed way to be remembered forever. Yet how many can name this person? And how many know that he was born in Waterford?

Ernest T.S. Walton received the Nobel prize for physics in 1951 for his work on splitting lithium atoms, undertaken at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, then headed by the legendary Ernest Rutherford. Walton shared the award with Sir John Cockcroft who was also knighted for his achievements.

Family and friends have described Walton as an exceptionally modest man who never sought fame for his remarkable accomplishments. But he will be commemorated eight years after his death, with celebrations marking the centenary of his birth, October 6th, 1903. Methodist College, Belfast, where Walton attended secondary school, has planned two days of events next Sunday and Monday. Trinity College, Dublin, to which Walton returned in 1934 after his ground-breaking work at Cambridge, also has plans for an event later this month.

Walton was born in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, the son of a Methodist minister from Co Tipperary. The ministry required that his father move every few years and the young Walton attended schools in Banbridge, Co Down and Cookstown, Co Tyrone before settling in 1915 into Methodist College or Methody, as it is known, on Belfast's Malone Road.

He graduated as head boy in 1922, meeting and eventually marrying the school's head girl of that year, Freda Wilson. He went on to study maths and experimental science at Trinity College and completed his Masters in 1927 before heading for Cambridge later that year.

His PhD was awarded in 1931, but 1932 is the year in which Walton entered the history books. He and Cockcroft developed the world's first particle accelerator and used it to fire particles at atoms, hoping to split them. Success came when Walton, working alone in the lab, changed to a lithium target and began to see on a screen the telltale flashes of light that marked the splitting of an atom.

Walton moved back to Trinity, spending 40 years there and eventually heading the university's physics department. He presented his Nobel citation and medal to the university on his 90th birthday in 1993.

"What he got the prize for was quite extraordinary and doing it with the facilities they had and as a young person," says TCD Provost, Prof John Hegarty. "That was a milestone in 20th-century science. His great contribution has been in teaching. He had an extraordinary effect on a generation of students."

Walton's son Philip, professor of applied physics at NUI Galway, expressed the family's delight that their father is being honoured at Methody. "We are very flattered. He is their most famous old boy," he says. His father didn't talk much about how he split the atom. "He used to love recollecting his Cambridge days. He didn't talk so much about the experiments themselves."

"He was so self-effacing and modest; his work didn't get into the headlines enough over the years. I don't know why it wasn't better understood." However the Nobel laureate had a commemorative 57 cent stamp released in his honour on September 16th.

Methodist College has two days of celebrations planned next Sunday and Monday. The four Walton siblings, physics graduates Philip, Alan, Marian Woods, and biology graduate Jean Clarke, will gather for a commemorative dinner on Sunday at 'Methody'.

On Monday there will be a symposium on Walton and his work, involving a cross-border mix of students and guest speakers. Philip Walton will deliver a keynote address, as will the current head of the Cavendish, Prof Malcolm Longair. Four seminars are also planned; one involving Green Party MEP, Nuala Ahern, another to be given by Alan Walton of Cambridge, and a further involving a third generation of Walton scientists, Ernest's granddaughter Sandra Woods of the Medical Physics Agency.

Methody is releasing a book about Walton which includes contributions from former President, Mrs Robinson; Trinity College Provost, John Hegarty; and UCD scientist, Dr Dervilla Donnelly. This is available from the college, tel: 04890-205205, at a cost of £6.