Ernest Walton

Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton (6 October 1903 – 25 June 1995) was an Irish physicist and Nobel laureate for his work with John Cockcroft with "atom-smashing" experiments done at Cambridge University in the early 1930s, and so became the first person in history to split the atom.

Ernest Walton
Ernest Walton
Ernest Walton
Born6 October 1903
Died25 June 1995 (aged 91)
Belfast, Northern Ireland
NationalityBritish (Irish/Northern Irish)
Alma materTrinity College, Dublin
Trinity College, Cambridge
Known forThe first disintegration of an atomic nucleus by artificially accelerated protons ("splitting the atom")
AwardsHughes Medal (1938)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1951)
Scientific career
InstitutionsTrinity College Dublin
University of Cambridge
Methodist College Belfast
Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies
Doctoral advisorErnest Rutherford

Early years

Ernest Walton was born in Abbeyside, Dungarvan, County Waterford to a Methodist minister father, Rev John Walton (1874–1936) and Anna Sinton (1874–1906). In those days a general clergyman's family moved once every three years, and this practice carried Ernest and his family, while he was a small child, to Rathkeale, County Limerick (where his mother died) and to County Monaghan. He attended day schools in counties Down and Tyrone, and at Wesley College Dublin before becoming a boarder at Methodist College Belfast in 1915, where he excelled in science and mathematics.

In 1922 Walton won scholarships to Trinity College, Dublin for the study of mathematics and science, and would go on to be elected a Foundation Scholar in 1924. He was awarded bachelor's and master's degrees from Trinity in 1926 and 1927, respectively. During these years at college, Walton received numerous prizes for excellence in physics and mathematics (seven prizes in all), including the Foundation Scholarship in 1924. Following graduation he was awarded an 1851 Research Fellowship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 [1] and was accepted as a research student at Trinity College, Cambridge, under the supervision of Sir Ernest Rutherford, Director of Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory. At the time there were four Nobel Prize laureates on the staff at the Cavendish lab and a further five were to emerge, including Walton and John Cockcroft. Walton was awarded his PhD in 1931 and remained at Cambridge as a researcher until 1934.[2]

During the early 1930s Walton and John Cockcroft collaborated to build an apparatus that split the nuclei of lithium atoms by bombarding them with a stream of protons accelerated inside a high-voltage tube (700 kilovolts). The splitting of the lithium nuclei produced helium nuclei. This was experimental verification of theories about atomic structure that had been proposed earlier by Rutherford, George Gamow, and others. The successful apparatus – a type of particle accelerator now called the Cockcroft-Walton generator – helped to usher in an era of particle-accelerator-based experimental nuclear physics. It was this research at Cambridge in the early 1930s that won Walton and Cockcroft the Nobel Prize in physics in 1951.[2]

Walton was associated with the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies for over 40 years, e,g., serving long periods on the board of the School of Cosmic Physics and on the Council of the Institute. Following the 1952 death of John J. Nolan, the inaugural chairman of the School of Cosmic Physics, Walton assumed the role, and served in that position until 1960, when he was succeeded by John H. Poole.[3][4]

Career at Trinity College Dublin

Ernest Walton returned to Ireland in 1934 to become a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin in the physics department, and in 1946 was appointed Erasmus Smith's Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy.[2] Walton's lecturing was considered outstanding as he had the ability to present complicated matters in simple and easy-to-understand terms. His research interests were pursued with very limited resources, yet he was able to study, in the late 1950s, the phosphorescent effect in glasses, secondary-electron emissions from surfaces under positive-ion bombardment, radiocarbon dating and low-level counting, and the deposition of thin films on glass.

Later years and death

Although he retired from Trinity College Dublin in 1974, he retained his association with the Physics Department at Trinity up to his final illness. His was a familiar face in the tea-room. Shortly before his death he marked his lifelong devotion to Trinity by presenting his Nobel medal and citation to the college.[5] Ernest Walton died in Belfast on 25 June 1995, aged 91. He is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin.[6]

Ernest Walton Grave 2016
Ernest Walton's Grave in Deansgrange Cemetery, south County Dublin

Family life

Ernest Walton married Freda Wilson (1903–1983), daughter of an Irish Methodist minister, on 23 August 1934. They had five children, Dr Alan Walton (college lecturer in physics, Magdalene College, Cambridge), Mrs Marian Woods, Professor Philip Walton, Professor of Applied Physics, National University of Ireland, Galway, Jean Clarke and Winifred Walton. He was a longtime member of the board of governors of Wesley College, Dublin.

Religious views

Raised as a Methodist, Walton has been described as someone who was strongly committed to the Christian faith.[7] He even gave lectures about the relationship of science and religion in several countries after he won the Nobel Prize,[8] and he encouraged the progress of science as a way to know more about God:

"One way to learn the mind of the Creator is to study His creation. We must pay God the compliment of studying His work of art and this should apply to all realms of human thought. A refusal to use our intelligence honestly is an act of contempt for Him who gave us that intelligence"

— V. J. McBrierty (2003): Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, The Irish Scientist, 1903-1995, Trinity College Dublin Press.)[9]

Walton held an interest in topics about the government and the Church and [10] after his death, the organisation Christians in Science Ireland established the Walton Lectures on Science and Religion (an initiative similar to the Boyle Lectures). David Wilkinson and Denis Alexander have given Walton Lectures in Trinity College Dublin.


Walton and John Cockcroft were recipients of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physics for their "work on the transmutation of the atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles" (popularly known as splitting the atom). They are credited with being the first to disintegrate the lithium nucleus by bombardment with accelerated protons (or hydrogen nuclei) and identifying helium nuclei in the products in 1930. More generally, they had built an apparatus which showed that nuclei of various lightweight elements (such as lithium) could be split by fast-moving protons.

Walton and Cockcroft received the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society of London in 1938. In much later years – and predominantly after his retirement in 1974 – Walton received honorary degrees or conferrals from numerous Irish, British, and North American institutions.

The "Walton Causeway Park" in Walton's native Dungarvan was dedicated in his honour with Walton himself attending the ceremony in 1989. After his death the Waterford Institute of Technology named a large building the ETS Walton Building and a plaque was placed on the site of his birthplace.

Other honours for Walton include the Walton Building at Methodist College, Belfast, the school where he had been a boarder for five years, and a memorial plaque outside the main entrance to Methodist College. Also, there is the Walton Prize for Physics at Wesley College, where he attended and for many years served as chairman of the board of Governors, and a prize with the same name at Methodist College, which is awarded to the pupil who obtains the highest marks in A Level Physics. There is also a scholarship in Waterford named after Walton.[11]

See also


  1. ^ 1851 Royal Commission Archives
  2. ^ a b c Boylan, Henry (1998). A Dictionary of Irish Biography, 3rd Edition. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan. p. 262. ISBN 0-7171-2945-4.
  3. ^ Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies: Council and Governing Boards as of 31/3/1947
  4. ^ Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies: Council and Governing Boards as of 31/3/1953
  5. ^ Ernest Walton profile Archived 8 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine,; accessed 4 June 2016.
  6. ^ Ernest Walton. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/57946.
  7. ^ V. J. McBrierty: Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, The Irish Scientist, 1903-1995 (Trinity College Dublin, 2003)
  8. ^ Walton was strongly committed to the Methodist faith, and following the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1951 jointly to himself and John Cockcroft, he spoke on science and religion to audiences in Ireland, the United States, and Sweden,; accessed 4 June 2016.
  9. ^ Ernest T. S. Walton profile,; accessed 4 June 2016.
  10. ^ Gale Research Inc (1998). "Encyclopedia of World Biography: Vitoria-Zworykin",: Outside of his scientific work, Ernest Walton was active in committees concerned with the government, the church, research and standards, scientific academies, and the Royal City of Dublin Hospital.
  11. ^ Walton scholarship,; accessed 4 June 2016.

Further reading

  • Cathcart, Brian (2005). The Fly in the Cathedral. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-027906-7. OCLC 57168084.
  • Massey, Harrie (1972). "Nuclear Physics Today and in Rutherford's Day". Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. 27: 25–33. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1972.0004.
  • McBrierty, Vincent J. (2003). Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton (1903–1995): The Irish Scientist. Trinity College Dublin Press. ISBN 1-871408-22-9. OCLC 53461335.

External links

1903 in Ireland

Notable events which occurred during 1903 relating to the island of Ireland.

1932 in Ireland

Events from the year 1932 in Ireland.

1951 in Ireland

Events from the year 1951 in Ireland.

1995 in Ireland

Events from the year 1995 in Ireland.

Cavendish Laboratory

The Cavendish Laboratory is the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, and is part of the School of Physical Sciences. The laboratory was opened in 1874 on the New Museums Site as a laboratory for experimental physics and is named after the British chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish. The laboratory has had a huge influence on research in the disciplines of physics and biology.

The laboratory moved to its present site in West Cambridge in 1974.

As of 2011, 29 Cavendish researchers have won Nobel Prizes. In the Research Excellence Framework the Cavendish Laboratory is ranked as the 7th-equal best physics department in the UK.


Deansgrange (Irish: Gráinseach an Déin, meaning "The Dean's Grange") is a suburban area of south Dublin, centred on a crossroads. The area shares the name Clonkeen (Irish: Cluain Chaoin, meaning "Beautiful Meadow"). The area further east of Deansgrange is known as "Kill of the Grange" (i.e. "Church of the Grange": Grange Church (now in ruins)).

Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson, HFRSE LLD (30 August 1871 – 19 October 1937), was a New Zealand-born British physicist who came to be known as the father of nuclear physics. Encyclopædia Britannica considers him to be the greatest experimentalist since Michael Faraday (1791–1867).In early work, Rutherford discovered the concept of radioactive half-life, the radioactive element radon, and differentiated and named alpha and beta radiation. This work was performed at McGill University in Canada. It is the basis for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry he was awarded in 1908 "for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances", for which he was the first Canadian and Oceanian Nobel laureate.

Rutherford moved in 1907 to the Victoria University of Manchester (today University of Manchester) in the UK, where he and Thomas Royds proved that alpha radiation is helium nuclei. Rutherford performed his most famous work after he became a Nobel laureate. In 1911, although he could not prove that it was positive or negative,

he theorized that atoms have their charge concentrated in a very small nucleus,

and thereby pioneered the Rutherford model of the atom, through his discovery and interpretation of Rutherford scattering by the gold foil experiment of Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden. He conducted research that led to the first "splitting" of the atom in 1917 in a nuclear reaction between nitrogen and alpha particles, in which he also discovered (and named) the proton.Rutherford became Director of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in 1919. Under his leadership the neutron was discovered by James Chadwick in 1932 and in the same year the first experiment to split the nucleus in a fully controlled manner was performed by students working under his direction, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton. After his death in 1937, he was honoured by being interred with the greatest scientists of the United Kingdom, near Sir Isaac Newton's tomb in Westminster Abbey. The chemical element rutherfordium (element 104) was named after him in 1997.

Hughes Medal

The Hughes Medal is awarded by the Royal Society of London "in recognition of an original discovery in the physical sciences, particularly electricity and magnetism or their applications". Named after David E. Hughes, the medal is awarded with a gift of £1000. The medal was first awarded in 1902 to J. J. Thomson "for his numerous contributions to electric science, especially in reference to the phenomena of electric discharge in gases", and has since been awarded over one-hundred times. Unlike other Royal Society medals, the Hughes Medal has never been awarded to the same individual more than once.

The medal has on occasion been awarded to multiple people at a time; in 1938 it was won by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton "for their discovery that nuclei could be disintegrated by artificially produced bombarding particles", in 1981 by Peter Higgs and Tom Kibble "for their international contributions about the spontaneous breaking of fundamental symmetries in elementary-particle theory", in 1982 by Drummond Matthews and Frederick Vine "for their elucidation of the magnetic properties of the ocean floors which subsequently led to the plate tectonic hypothesis" and in 1988 by Archibald Howie and M. J. Whelan "for their contributions to the theory of electron diffraction and microscopy, and its application to the study of lattice defects in crystals".

John Alexander Sinton

Brigadier John Alexander Sinton, (2 December 1884 – 25 March 1956) was a British medical doctor, malariologist, soldier, and a recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

John Cockcroft

Sir John Douglas Cockcroft, (27 May 1897 – 18 September 1967) was a British physicist who shared with Ernest Walton the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1951 for splitting the atomic nucleus, and was instrumental in the development of nuclear power.

After service on the Western Front with the Royal Field Artillery during the Great War, Cockcroft studied electrical engineering at Manchester Municipal College of Technology whilst he was an apprentice at Metropolitan Vickers Trafford Park and was also a member of their research staff. He then won a scholarship to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he sat the tripos exam in June 1924, becoming a wrangler. Ernest Rutherford accepted Cockcroft as a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory, and Cockcroft completed his doctorate under Rutherford's supervision in 1928. With Ernest Walton and Mark Oliphant he built what became known as a Cockcroft–Walton accelerator. Cockcroft and Walton used this to perform the first artificial disintegration of an atomic nucleus, a feat popularly known as splitting the atom.

During the Second World War Cockcroft became Assistant Director of Scientific Research in the Ministry of Supply, working on radar. He was also a member of the committee formed to handle issues arising from the Frisch–Peierls memorandum, which calculated that an atomic bomb could be technically feasible, and of the MAUD Committee which succeeded it. In 1940, as part of the Tizard Mission, he shared British technology with his counterparts in the United States. Later in the war, the fruits of the Tizard Mission came back to Britain in the form of the SCR-584 radar set and the proximity fuze, which were used to defeat the V-1 flying bomb. In May 1944, he became director of the Montreal Laboratory, and oversaw the development of the ZEEP and NRX reactors, and the creation of the Chalk River Laboratories.

After the war Cockcroft became the director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) at Harwell, where the low-powered, graphite-moderated GLEEP became the first nuclear reactor to operate in western Europe when it was started on 15 August 1947. This was followed by BEPO in 1948. Harwell was involved in the design of the reactors and the chemical separation plant at Windscale. Under his direction it took part in frontier fusion research, including the ZETA program. His insistence that the chimney stacks of the Windscale reactors be fitted with filters was mocked as Cockcroft's Folly until the core of one of the reactors ignited and released radionuclides during the Windscale fire of 1957.

From 1959 to 1967, he was the first Master of Churchill College, Cambridge. He was also chancellor of the Australian National University in Canberra from 1961 to 1965.

John James Nolan

John James Nolan (28 December 1888 – 18 April 1952) was an Irish physicist who served as President of the Royal Irish Academy from 1949 to 1952.He was born near Omagh, County Tyrone and educated at University College Dublin. After graduation in 1909 he carried out research in the Physics Department under Professor John A. McClelland on the electrical charge of rain. He was awarded D.Sc in 1917.

In 1914, he married Hannah "Teresa" Hurley from near Bantry, in County Cork. The couple had five sons, one of whom died at the end of World War II. He was an uncle of abstract painter Evin Nolan.

In 1920, he succeeded McClelland as Professor of Experimental Physics, guiding research into atmospheric electricity and aerosols. Together with his brother, Patrick J. Nolan, and their students, they studied ionization, equilibrium and the relationships of small and large ions in the lower atmosphere. He also, with V. H. Guerrini, developed in 1935 the diffusion battery for measuring the size of aerosol particles.When the School of Cosmic Physics was established at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in 1947, John J. Nolan was appointed as its inaugural Chairman. He served until his death in 1952, and was succeeded in this position by Ernest Walton.In 1950, Nolan successfully nominated Cecil Powell for the Nobel Prize in Physics. Five year earlier, he had nominated Patrick Blackett, who became a Nobel laureate in 1948.In 1920, he was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, becoming Secretary in 1923 and President from 1949 to 1952. He was also Registrar of University College Dublin from 1940 until his death. In 1952, he died while lecturing a large class at UCD in Earlsfort Terrace. He was succeeded as professor of physics at UCD in 1953 by his former student T. E. Nevin, whose M.Sc. thesis under Nolan was on “The Effect of Water Vapour on the Diffusion Coefficients and Mobilities of Ions in the Air,”

List of Scholars of Trinity College Dublin

This is a list of notable individuals elected as Scholars of Trinity College Dublin. Regarded as "the most prestigious undergraduate award in the country", Foundation Scholarship ("Schols") examinations have been held at Trinity since its establishment in 1592.

Schols is awarded to those who achieve a first class honours average in a set of challenging voluntary examinations, held annually in January the week before Hilary term begins, which test a student's ability to "consistently demonstrate exceptional knowledge and understanding of their subjects". Benefits include waived fees, rooms in college and dining rights at Commons. Typically, less than 1% of the undergraduate population is awarded the scholarship.

Many scholars have gone on to great acclaim in a range of fields over the past six centuries, both in academia and the wider world. Former scholars include two Nobel Prize winners, one head of state, numerous government ministers, an Academy Award nominee, and nine Provosts of Trinity College Dublin itself.

The subject and year of scholarship are included in brackets after each awardee's name below.

Methodist College Belfast

Methodist College Belfast (MCB), locally known as Methody, is a Northern Irish coeducational voluntary grammar school in Belfast, located at the foot of the Malone Road. It was founded in 1865 by the Methodist Church in Ireland and is one of eight Northern Irish schools represented on the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. It is also a member of the Independent Schools Council and the Governing Bodies Association.The college was ranked in the top 100 in the United Kingdom and the top 10 in Northern Ireland in the 2018 The Sunday Times Parent Power Best UK Schools Guide, which ranks schools based on GCSE and GCE Advanced Level examination results, truancy rates and pupil destinations.In rugby, the college has won both the Ulster Schools Cup a record 36 times and the Medallion Shield 35 times, which is also a record. The college choirs have won Songs of Praise Choir of the Year, Sainsbury's Choir of the Year and RTÉ All-Island School Choir of the Year. The Chapel Choir has performed in Westminster Abbey and the Carnegie Hall as well as during Queen Elizabeth II's visit to the Republic of Ireland.Past pupils of the college are known as Old Collegians and the college has a former pupils' organisation that brands itself as Methody Collegians. They have branches across the world, including London, Hong Kong and Canada. The college has links with Belfast Harlequins, the successor of the former sports club for staff and past pupils, Collegians.

Outline of nuclear technology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to nuclear technology:

Nuclear technology – involves the reactions of atomic nuclei. Among the notable nuclear technologies are nuclear power, nuclear medicine, and nuclear weapons. It has found applications from smoke detectors to nuclear reactors, and from gun sights to nuclear weapons.

Pitch (resin)

Pitch is a name for any of a number of viscoelastic polymers. Pitch can be natural or manufactured, derived from petroleum, coal tar, or plants. Various forms of pitch may also be called tar, bitumen, or asphalt. Pitch produced from plants is also known as resin. Some products made from plant resin are also known as rosin.

Pitch was traditionally used to help caulk the seams of wooden sailing vessels (see shipbuilding). Pitch may also be used to waterproof wooden containers and in the making of torches. Petroleum-derived pitch is black in colour, hence the adjectival phrase, "pitch-black".

University Philosophical Society

The University Philosophical Society (UPS; Irish: Cumann Fealsúnachta Choláiste na Trionóide), commonly known as The Phil, is a student paper-reading and debating society in Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Founded in 1683 it is often referred to as the oldest student, collegial and paper-reading society in the world.The society is based within the Graduates Memorial Building of Trinity College. Throughout its long history it has welcomed many prominent guests and some of its most notable members include Ernest Walton, John Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde.

Wesley College (Dublin)

Wesley College is an independent co-educational secondary school for day and boarding students in Ballinteer, Dublin, Ireland. Wesley College is under the control of a Board of Governors, appointed each year by the Methodist Church in Ireland.

Wesley College was founded on 1 October 1845 and counts two Nobel laureates among its alumni.

Strong emphasis is put on religious education for all denominations and both extra-curricular activities and sport play an important part in this school.

The College offers pupils an opportunity to explore the humanities, sciences, technology, business studies, English literature, music and the arts.

Wesley College offers a range of extracurricular and sporting activities in the belief that these assist a sound general education and contribute to the whole person.


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