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Matin Durrani: January 2010 Archives

By Matin Durrani

Skimming through the latest issue of CavMag – a glossy newsletter about the latest developments at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge – I at first thought I had misread an article that stated: “In 1930, when I gratefully accepted a research studentship from Girton College…”

Marie Constable visiting the Cavendish Laboratory with director of development Malcolm Longair (right) and Geoffrey Constable (right)

In fact, it was not a misprint but part of a wonderful article by Marie Constable, a 101-year-old physicist who had done her PhD at the Cavendish back in the early 1930s.

Constable, who was writing all about her visit to the Cavendish in September last year to attend its Alumni Open Day, gave some marvellous insights into several legendary figures from physics.

Lord Rutherford, she writes, was “a big, bluff and hearty New Zealander”, who was “friendly and helplful”. He would, apparently, make random visits around the lab to his research students, knocking loudly on their door before asking if they needed any help. It was Rutherford, she says, who also instituted the practice of the Cavendish afternoon tea break, serving tea and buns every Wednesday in the library.

James Chadwick, who discovered the neutron and was Rutherford’s effective second-in-command, is described as being “friendly and kind” although he had a reputation for not tolerating silly mistakes and could sometimes “get cross”.

Meanwhile, Constable recalls Patrick Blackett, another Nobel laureate who had served in the Royal Navy, as being “tall, handsome and helpful” and “a remarkable addition to the Cavendish staff”.

Marie also once attended a lecture by Niels Bohr although, perhaps not surprisingly given his taciturnity, she says little about Paul Dirac, other than he “was often seen in the Cavendish and regularly attended the Wednesday afternoon tea-break”.

As for life at the Cavendish, it was apparently “serene and decent” and the atmosphere was “collaborative rather than adverserial”.

But despite being the only female graduate student at the Cavendish at the time, Constable says she did not encounter much discrimination. However, she admits that when she was an undergraduate, women had to sit at the front of the lecture room – “for fear their attention might be distracted by too much male proximity”. And she was later prevented from attending a workshop course for research students, forced to enrol instead at a local technical college instead.

Luckily that worshop experience proved handy and Marie carved out a career as a safety expert.

It’s a great little story and marvellous to see there are still living links with the glory days of Cambridge physics. The full article can be read at CavMag, which will be put online at this link shortly