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Department of Physics

The Cavendish Laboratory

This booklet is not a history of the Cavendish Laboratory. Such a history, brought up to date, would require far greater resources of capital, time and effort than were available in the creation and publication of this work. The limited scale of this booklet has necessitated the adoption of a different approach, an approach that, if it has to be summarised in a word, is best described in the way that Dr. J.B. Adams described his treatment of the recent Rutherford Centenary Lecture. Dr. Adams pointed out that any hour-long study of his subject ("Four Generations of Nuclear Physicists", available under this title from the Royal Society) would have to be impressionistic in style. In this sense of the word, then, this booklet is in style impressionistic, concerned with communicating a general impression of its subject rather than a detailed description.

Another factor has played a large part in determining the make-up of this work. Although it is hoped that the booklet will be of quite wide interest, it is essentially an undergraduate publication produced by undergraduates, published by an undergraduate society, and aimed principally at undergraduates in the Cavendish. Because of this it has a distinctly domestic slant. It is concerned not so much with a list of discoveries and research triumphs, but with the internal life of a working research and teaching laboratory - in particular with its traditions, way of life, and its personalities. This slant has been deliberately and unapologetically reinforced by the decision to choose wherever possible articles composed in the main of the personal reminiscences of Cambridge physicists who have themselves played an important part in the history of the Cavendish.

This attempt to record the internal rather than external life of the Cavendish seemed most important for the period up to the Second World War. As several writers have stressed, the world of Cambridge physics was changed drastically and irrecoverably by the immense alterations in the scale and outlook of science that the War engendered. At the same time this pre-War period is well covered in terms of the formal history of its scientific work and the formal biography of its personalities. These two facts make it seem best to take the factual history of the Cavendish's development largely as being already known and to concentrate more on the impressionistic approach to its domestic history.

Luckily two excellent articles in this vein were available, one by Sir G.P. Thomson, adapted with his kind permission from his book "J.J. Thomson and the Cavendish Laboratory" and the other by Prof. S. Devons, based originally on a lecture in Moscow and reprinted here with the kind permission of both Prof. Devons and the editor of Physics Today, in which it later appeared. Unfortunately it did not prove possible to find any suitable article for the earliest period. Finally, with much reluctance and at a late stage, it was decided that I should write a sketch of this period myself. I must apologise for having to inflict this on the reader, and for having to include my name in an otherwise very distinguished list of contributors, in which it is quite out of place.

The later, post-War period posed a different problem. It was felt that less emphasis was needed on the domestic life of the Laboratory in this relatively recent period, but on the other hand more emphasis was needed on the details of the scientific development and personalities of the period, as these have not yet been adequately covered in book form. Pressure on space was, however, severe, and it has only been possible to deal with selected topics. Firstly, there was only room for one biographical article, and there was no question that the subject of this had to be the first post-War Cavendish Professor, Sir Lawrence Bragg. His life and work are described here by his colleague and friend Prof. M.F. Perutz, by kind permission of both the author and the editor of Nature, in which it first appeared. Prof. Perutz has also contributed one of two articles which describe one of the most notable features of the post-War Cavendish, the development of two new and major sciences, Molecular Biology (as described by Prof. Perutz); and Radio Astronomy (as described by Prof. F.G. Smith, now of Jodrell Bank.) Finally, when the very important wartime period had been covered by Prof. A.P. French, now of MIT, and who has given a great deal of encouragement to those working on this booklet, there was room only for a study of the development of one branch of physics. The one chosen was Nuclear Physics, a subject which has of course a special place in Cavendish history, and which has been ably brought up to date by Prof. O.R. Frisch.

This leaves of course much of vital importance in Cavendish history that has not been covered, notably the tenure of office of Sir Nevill Mott and the development of Solid State Physics. Unfortunately a booklet produced with the capital of an undergraduate society and for the undergraduate pocket has to be severely limited in size. It is only to be hoped that soon a more comprehensive history of the Cavendish will appear, doing justice to what nobody would deny is a fascinating subject.

Dennis Moralee
Patent Office Library,
London July 1974