Review: Evan James Williams – Atomic Physicist is testament to the power of thought

Evan James Williams: Atomic Physicist

Jon Gower

The story of how a boy from a poor family in the Ceredigion village of Cwmsychbant became one of Wales’ most eminent scientists literally spans the world, taking in Moscow to the east and California to the west as it traces the life of a gifted man.  A Welsh speaker with a real allegiance to Wales, Evan James Williams would excel in a scientific milieu which at the time was developing a whole new lexicon for explaining the world made up of positrons, mesons, muons and prions.

Not only was the atom offering up its secrets but physics itself was going through a re-boot, with classical physics jockeying with quantum mechanics, and scientists such as Heisenberg and Schrodinger and Einstein were both unravelling the structure of the atom and exploring the nature of matter. In this feverish whirlwind of discovery and speculation Williams was to be a leading figure.  He worked with many of the world’s most prominent scientists, during one of the most exciting and revolutionary periods in the history of science in the twentieth century: not bad for a stonemason’s son from south Ceredigion.

Of course there had to be gifted teachers to encourage him along life’s path, including science master John Jones at Llandysul, where young Evan James demonstrated his gifts not only in the grades he achieved but also by predicting his own marks, which came in within two per cent of his original estimates. Superb grades were achieved despite wartime restrictions meant Williams was left to his own devices much of the time.

 

Ill-health

Some of his friends recalled a prophesy he shared with them, that he would not only have a doctorate in the next twenty years but a fellowship of the Royal Society to boot.  This was a young man who clearly set his sights high – when he got his degree at University College Swansea it not was not only with first class honours but also with the highest possible praise from the external examiner, Nobel prize winner Charles Barkla, who said his papers ‘were some of the most remarkable I have ever had the privilege of reading’.

Success bred success and by the age of thirty Williams had secured an internationally recognised fellowship and had spent a year at Niels Bohr’s Institute in Copenhagen, one of the main centres for theoretical physics in the world.  Studying for a second doctorate then took him to Cambridge, to the renowned Cavendish Laboratory where he would work with Ernest Rutherford and have to learn glass-blowing and how to construct the equipment he would use.  He went on to become Professor of Physics at Aberystwyth but ill-health overshadowed this period of returning to Wales and sadly he died at the age of 42.

Driven

The portrait painted of Evan James Williams is of a man driven by ideas, who managed to balance experimental proofs in the laboratory with the elasticity of theory, culminating in proving the validity of quantum physics for high energy electrons moving at speeds close to the speed of light’ which represented ‘probably Williams’ greatest single contribution to theory’ according to fellow scientist Patrick Blackett. His dedication to his work meant sacrificing relationships with women, but the book also shows a man with flaws, not least when it came to driving, and who had a curious habit of constantly checking his weight.

The Second World War saw Williams’ analytical skills directed towards defeating the U-boats which were harrying and sinking vital convoys of cargo.  Williams’ work at the Admiralty’s Coastal Command was part of a large-scale recruitment of some 7000 scientists, subsequently known as boffins, whose services were enlisted in anything from breaking the Enigma Code to giving science a strategic role in warfare, often challenging the conventional, military way of thinking.

Williams worked out the best places to drop depth charges when targeting U-boats and also found out why aircraft failed to spot as many German submarines as might be expected.  The answer, when it came, was fairly simple and involved painting the undersides of the aircraft wings white, thus making them less visible by day.

Clarity

Independent scholar Rowland Wynne’s account of the life of this brilliant and gifted scientist needs must explain the physics along the way and he does so with clarity and concision, so that the general reader gets at least a basic understanding of the complexities of such theories as the so-called Bragg-Williams order-disorder model, which explains what happens when alloys of metal are cooled or heated. It also depicts a new world order in physics, aided by the creation of cyclotrons, the discovery of new sub-atomic particles and an understanding of cosmic rays and one where new ideas about black holes appeared even as the Manhattan project put atomic energy to destructive effect.

The blue plaque, erected by the Institute of Physics on the wall of Evan James Williams’ birthplace at Brynawel, is the only one in Wales thus far.  This book explains why it is so deserving, a testament to how the power of thought and thoughts catapulted a crwt from south Ceredigion into the top echelons of academia, also into the heart of the war effort and through brief decades of sophisticated thinking about the basic matter of the universe in a life then cut most cruelly short.

Evan James Williams: Atomic Physicist is published by University of Wales Press and can be bought here.

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