Who was JJ Thomson?

The JJ Thomson building, which houses pharmacy, was named after the physicist Sir Joseph John Thomson. His most notable achievement was his discovery and identity of the electron. It was the first subatomic particle to ever be discovered in April 1897. It had been theorized before but he was the first to come up with solid evidence for its existence.  He also discovered that Hydrogen had only one electron per atom.

He was the first person to use mass spectrometry, which measures the mass of different molecules in a sample, in 1912. He discovered that neon was composed of two different kinds of atoms and that there were isotopes in stable elements.

Outside of his discovery he was also a Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge, at the early age of 27, after he graduated from there with a masters in mathematics in 1883. He has many notable ex-students, such as Ernest Rutherford who is more commonly known as the father of nuclear physics.

He has many awards ranging from his Nobel Prize in 1906, to his knighthood. His Nobel Prize was awarded “in recognition of the great merits of his theoretical and experimental investigation on the conduction of electricity y gases”.  He was subsequently knighted in 1908 and given the Order of Merit in 1912. The Order of Merit recognises distinguished services in the armed forces, science art or literature. There can only be 24 living individuals at any given time who have the Order of Merit.

His legacy was continued when his son, George Paget Thomson, won the Nobel Prize in 1937 for proving that electrons have wave-like properties.

In his lifetime he published 13 book and over 200 papers, the most famous of which is called ‘Conduction of electricity through gases’. All of his books can be found in the University’s special collections which are housed in the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL).

Written by Amelia Dinsdale

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