Between 1884 and 1919 an earnest looking professor along with a bunch of talented research students in a rather underfunded Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge split the atom and started a new branch of science known as Particle Physics. The Professor was JJ Thomson, the discoverer or electron for which he got the Nobel Prize in 1906. What followed subsequently was not anticipated, seven of JJ’s research students went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry, a feat unrivalled by any other Professor. Not only that, 75 of his students held professorship in around 55 universities globally and 27 were elected Fellows of the Royal Society.One would wonder what was happening at the Cavendish Laboratory under JJ that would secure such a roll of honour. Was it just a quirk of fate that some of the best minds in Physics congregated at Cavendish during the time or was it JJ’s ability to make intelligent men do brilliant work.
By the age of 50, JJ achieved everything a physicist would aspire for – Directorship of the world’s best Physics laboratory, global acknowledgement for his work, a fundamental discovery to his name and the physics Nobel Prize. He could have retired and gone fishing and the world would have still remembered him as one of the finest physicist ever.
But there is one achievement which JJ pursued and not much is which is talked about it. This pursuit essentially defines his personality and his commitment towards his subject. He was an outstanding teacher, world has probably not seen many of the likes of him. JJ always acknowledged that he was fortunate to have very gifted teachers who recognised and honed young JJ’s skills in mathematics and physics. This approach JJ as a teacher would repeat for his students with telling effect. Thomson would daily check the progress of the young researchers in Cavendish and often make suggestions for improvement. JJ was of course a brilliant man which combined with his humanness and patience was a combination hard to beat, He attracted the best students from all over the world. One of his former student Prof John Zeeman summed it up well “We all love his characteristic smile, and every one of us felt a certain pleasure within ourselves on hearing a footstep that every Cavendish man recognises as solely J.J’s” His Nobel Laureate students include Rutherford, Aston, Wilson, Bragg, Barkla, Richardson, and Appleton – a group who amongst themselves laid the most important bricks of particle physics. Interestingly JJ’s son George Thomson also went on to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. However George’s thesis supervisor was Prof John Strutt and not his father.
Sir Issac Newton from the same alma-mata, Cambridge University, as JJ Thomson and his students once said- “If I have seen further than others , it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Same would hold for JJ’s students, for JJ was a scientific giant of his time albeit gentle and humane and helped his students discover the big idea behind the small particles.