History

Bristol's School of Physics has been making its mark on science for over a hundred years. Renowned figures include Nobel Laureates Paul Dirac, Nevill Mott and Cecil F Powell. The school is recognised worldwide for its pioneering research in quantum mechanics, semiconductors, condensed matter and metal physics, cosmic ray and astrophysics, glaciology, X-ray interferometry, topological optics, and, more recently, nanoscience and quantum information science.

As well as being the birthplace of such breakthroughs as the Aharonov-Bohm Effect and the Berry Phase, Bristol also welcomed many physicists fleeing from the Nazis in the 1930s, some of whom would also receive Nobel recognition.

The first physics lecturer at University College Bristol, which would become Bristol University in 1909, was Silvanus P. Thompson, author of the 39-times-reprinted Elementary Lessons in Electricity and Magnetism and noted for his contributions to electrical engineering. His successor, Arthur P. Chattock, not only carried out definitive experiments on the gyromagnetic ratio of iron, but also gave almost every physics lecture every year.

These lectures inspired Arthur M. Tyndall, who enrolled for a BSc in 1899 and went on to become the “father” of the School of Physics. A lecturer and then professor who researched the mobility of ions in gases, Tyndall persuaded the Bristol industrialist Henry Herbert Wills to endow a purpose-built laboratory, opened in 1927, that sits at the highest point in central Bristol.

One of those who took Tyndall's lectures on the kinetic theory of gases and on “quantum theory” was Paul Dirac, who studied for a degree in mathematics at Bristol from 1921-3 and would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1935 for his epoch-changing discoveries in quantum mechanics.

Tyndall had a wonderful nose for identifying talented individuals. In 1925 he appointed John Jones to a readership. Jones, who took on the surname Lennard-Jones after marriage, became the first professor of theoretical physics in the UK in 1927, pioneering the theory of interatomic and intermolecular forces before moving to Cambridge to become the UK’s first Professor of Theoretical Chemistry.

Tyndall’s enthusiasm for theorists led to the appointment in 1933 of the youthful Nevill Mott to a Chair, joining Harry Jones, who was already working on problems in the theory of metals. Within six months, Mott and Jones were publishing work in this field and the first edition of their classic treatise on The Theory of Metals and Alloys was published in 1936. The quantum foundations of the theory of metals and semiconductors were set down in Bristol at this time and laid the groundwork for subsequent developments in the electronic properties of solids, for which Mott shared the Nobel Prize in 1978. Mott also devised, with Ronald Gurney, the theory of the photographic process.

In the 1930s Bristol welcomed many physicists fleeing from the Nazis. Hans Bethe, Max Delbrück and Gerhard Herzberg, all subsequently Nobel Laureates for physics, medicine and chemistry respectively, spent brief periods in the Laboratory. Others, such as Herbert Fröhlich, Walter Heitler and Heinz London, stayed for several years.

After the war, Mott returned to Bristol and continued to pioneer what is now known as condensed matter physics. He brought John Eshelby and Frank Nabarro, both working on dislocations in crystals, and Jacques Friedel, Mott's future brother-in-law, who almost single-handedly introduced solid state theory into France and later became President of the Academie des Sciences.

Mott's most inspired appointee was Frederick Charles Frank, who came to Bristol in 1946, after distinguished wartime work in the Air Ministry intelligence service for which he was awarded an OBE and a knighthood. Charles Frank was a founder of the theory of dislocations and of crystal growth and surface physics. He also predicted muon-catalysed cold fusion and created the theory of the elastic properties of liquid crystals (the Frank constants) and their disclination singularities. In the 1960's he applied his expertise in solid state physics to bring fundamental new insight into several aspects of geoscience, including the curvature of island arcs.

Read more about the school's history.

Nevill Mott
Charles Frank
Cecil Powell
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