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The Cloud Chamber

cloud chamber 2By George Guyou

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 They have now been superseded by sensors such as those at CERN, but Wilson’s work is the true precursor to such sensors.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.

Murdo writes:

“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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Comments (12)

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  1. wull says:

    Interesting article. Many thanks.

  2. Darien says:

    While we seek to glorify great achievements of past Scots academics, and there is not much wrong with that, bizarrely we ignore the virtual ethnic cleansing of Scots academics from our present ‘elite’ universities.

  3. Jon Buchanan says:

    Will definitely try to get along to Murdo’s introductory presentation, if miss it, the exhibition will have to suffice! Nice article by George, felt like it was just getting going when it ended though, why I’m hoping to catch the presentation! Darien, whilst it is a shame we do lose some of our brightest and best, I think the new social contact we are demanding in Scotland is drawing many back; whilst I wouldn’t count myself as any kind of major league player, my PhD was in ‘Restrictions of Civil Liberties Arising from the Continuing Administration of British Maritime Law in Post Colonial Britain’, way back when, I have two joint degrees, one in Scottish Ethnology and Literature and one in Politics and Law, both from University of Edinburgh, one of our elite universities, I work in disabled advocacy in Scotland, have worked in community development for over twenty years, (this from a third generation mining family, I love and work in the places I grew up in and gradually have convinced them the coal should have stayed in the ground anyway!) I have never been susceptible to any cleansing, I work with quite a few others who are well educated too, most of them from similar backgrounds to mine, maybe the patient is on the mend if we keep giving it the right treatment?

    1. Jon Buchanan says:

      Sorry was meant to be live and work, but could have out love in there too!:-)

      1. Jon Buchanan says:

        Must get the hang of typing on the tablet, on the move clearly should have been *put*; should have also mentioned, currently working on a ‘Political Ethnography of Frontal Lobe Epilepsy’ for the epilepsy charity Quarriers to be presented to a cross party group on disability at the Scottish Parliament, your right Darien, if I hadn’t stayed here, I wouldn’t be dong that and it matters too!

        1. Darien says:

          You can play ‘spot the Scot’ at most of Scotland’s ‘elite’ uni’s using staff lists. Take your time – there aint that many Scots academics to find nowadays. Personally I find this outcome highly negligent, as well as tragic, perhaps even naïve (of Scots ourselves). Vested interests (mainly in our uni sector) no doubt readily find excuses (e.g. best academics are international yada yada yada). But clearly Minister Constance needs to do more…….much more. It’s not as if our economy is benefitting from the present state of affairs. Only around 10% at best of postgrad students taking a PhD at Edin each year are Scots – which implies Scots may in future make up only around 10% of academics with doctorates at Scottish uni’s. Wha’s like us indeed – elite uni’s for elite students and elite staff fae anywhere – except Scotland.

          http://www.strath.ac.uk/staff/?department=Naval Architecture, Ocean and Marine Engineering&role=Academic

    2. Darien says:

      “it is a shame we do lose some of our brightest and best”

      I think you miss my point Jon. Several decades of Scots uni’s importing academics and PhD students has created a mass of academics in Scotland today who are not Scots. Check out any ‘elite’ univ department if you are in any doubt. Moreover, senior management at most ‘Scottish’ uni’s are not Scots either. Few Scots seem to have noticed this transformation, perhaps because it has been a gradual process. But for sure, Scots academics are in the minority certainly at our ‘elite’ uni’s if not all our uni’s. Thus, we don’t have the luxury of losing “our brightest and best” any longer – we are simply not creating them in the first place.

    3. Mairi McFadyen says:

      There aren’t many of us in the world who did Scottish Ethnology and Literature. Hi fellow traveller!

      1. Jon Buchanan says:

        Not many indeed, class of 95-99 for me, big fan of Dr Emily Lyle’s Traditional Cosmology classes! Greetings fellow traveller!

  4. douglas clark says:

    George Guyou,

    Thanks for that.

  5. Phil says:

    George Guyou; thank you for this information.

    The gallery and Professor MacDonald are not yet known in this house, to be rectified in July. Wilson, yes, from decades-old school science classes.

  6. Darien says:

    “Cultural renewal is a process of uncovering our own mislaid and neglected history”

    This seems rather an ironic statement given the continuing systematic decline in proportion of Scots academics at oor ane institutions. Academics fi a’where remind us Scots how great the auld Scots academics were, once upon a time. They will also no doubt remind us, as they do now, that Scotland’s ancient universities are ‘world class’, despite being devoid of Scots.

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