I floated away on a cloud chamber and didn't want to come back to solid ground

22nd March 2013 at 00:00
The Scots who have made staggeringly important advances in pure science deserve greater recognition

I'm just back from the Association for Science Education's Scottish conference. There were many high points, including managing to chat to forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black without irritating her sufficiently to merit the punch in the arm I earned last year.

At one point, I sneaked into a workshop at which cloud chambers were being made. And, as if that wasn't enough in itself, the session was co-hosted by TESS writer Douglas Blane. As Father Dougal said when he visited the opticians with Ted and Jack, "It doesn't get any better than this."

Seriously, a cloud chamber is a thing of great beauty. In it, you form a kind of local atmosphere where clouds are on the point of forming but need some sort of seed to grow around. That seed could be an electric charge, and such charges can be caused by cosmic rays. As we sat in a darkened conference room in Crieff, wispy trails appeared before our eyes, prompting cries of delight from the assembled physicists.

The cloud chamber was invented by Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, who was born in the foothills of the Pentlands. He worked at the observatory on Ben Nevis and was fascinated by an atmospheric phenomenon called "the glory" - a sort of halo that forms in the mist. Readers of Scottish literature will have met it in the scene on Arthur's Seat in Hogg's Justified Sinner.

Wilson wanted to recreate a glory in his lab, but instead discovered mysterious tracks in his chamber. He came up with the idea of cosmic rays, but dismissed the theory when he still found them in a railway tunnel in Peebles, not realising that they were able to penetrate the ground.

The cloud chamber is a hugely important device in the history of science. It earned Wilson the Nobel Prize in Physics. He's the only Scot to have one. Did you know that? For too long I didn't, even as a physics student tramping the very hills where Wilson grew up.

As Scots, we're quite good at lauding some of our high-profile inventors, but less good at recognising those who have made staggeringly important advances in pure science. Take another Scottish physicist (note: "another", not "the other"), James Clerk Maxwell. It will soon be the 150th anniversary of his world-changing paper on electromagnetism. He is up there with Newton and Einstein.

You probably have heard of him, but too many people haven't. There's a group of us aiming to ensure that the time is nigh when his name is known by everyone in the country. Some of the cloud chamber people, including Douglas, are involved in this. Coming soon, and not just at science teacher events ...

Gregor Steele will happily direct you to the iconic Peebles railway tunnel.

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