The Cloud Chamber
Cultural renewal is a process of uncovering our own mislaid and neglected history. Here’s a forgotten near-history of ideas.
Scottish physicist CTR Wilson’s invention of the Cloud Chamber led to the production of photographic plates that made visible for the first time the tracks of individual subatomic particles. Of major scientific significance, these images from 1911 and 1912 are also very beautiful, and furthermore reflect Wilson’s skill as a photographer.
The traces, formed by condensing clouds of water droplets, demonstrated the existence of entities that until then had only been hypothesized. The Cloud Chamber provided a means for the direct experimental observation of the behaviours of these particles, initiating an enormously significant period of investigation, and resulting in the award to Wilson of the Nobel Prize in 1927.
By noting the degree to which the condensation tracks of different elementary particles were altered by magnetic fields, it was possible to distinguish the fundamental constituents of matter, and precisely measure their behaviour. Cloud Chambers became the key visualization tool for particle physics for the first half of the twentieth century. They have now been superseded by sensors such as those at CERN, but Wilson’s work is the true precursor to such sensors. With the current interest in the Higgs’ Boson this is a particularly interesting time to revisit the visual-aesthetic aspect of Wilson’s work.
Murdo Macdonald trained originally as an artist but has spent most of his career as a historian of art and ideas, since 1997 as Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee. Macdonald’s photographic installation makes connection, through HICA’s geographical location, to the now ruined weather observatory on the summit of Ben Nevis, at which Wilson was stationed in 1894, studying atmospheric effects such as haloes and glories. That experience was crucial to his understanding of cloud formation and his desire to emulate such cloud formation conditions at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.
“C T R Wilson was one of the most remarkable of all Scottish scientists of the twentieth century. He was one of the leading physicists of his generation, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1927 for his work in making visible the tracks of sub-atomic particles. His invention of the Cloud Chamber transformed the possibilities of tracking particles to such an extent that it was described, by his fellow Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford as ‘the most original and wonderful instrument in scientific history.’ He did most of his work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, following in the footsteps of his fellow Scot, James Clerk Maxwell. But he has been neglected in Scotland – there is not even an image of him in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – and his brilliance as a technical photographer and the sheer beauty of his photographs has been little appreciated outside physics. These digital enlargements from original negatives remind us not only of Wilson’s importance as a scientist, but of his superb aesthetic and technical achievement as a photographer.”
Wilson Chamber Images: The Aesthetic of the Sub-Atomic
presented by Murdo Macdonald will open at the Highland Institute for Contemporary Art on Sunday 5 July, 2-5pm then run until 9 August, 2015
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