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Physics in the family

08 Dec 2015
Taken from the December 2015 issue of Physics World

Crystal Clear: the Autobiographies of Sir Lawrence & Lady Bragg
Ed. A M Glazer and Patience Thomson
2015 Oxford University Press £35.00hb 448pp

Tellers of tales

Recent years have seen a surge of material released on the lives and works of William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg, the father-and-son team who shared the 1915 Nobel Prize for Physics. Their prize, awarded “for their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays”, recognized research that fundamentally changed the way we think about molecules and crystals, and laid the foundations for modern crystallography. This wonderful book – published in the centenary year of the Braggs’ Nobel prize – adds to this trend by giving us, for the first time, the family stories of Sir Lawrence Bragg (WLB) and his wife, Lady Alice Bragg, in their own words.

But Crystal Clear is far more than the autobiographies of the two main players. Rather, it tells the story of their lives – scientific, political, social and personal – in four quite distinct voices. The first voice is that of Mike Glazer, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Oxford, who gives a brief but essential history of the scientific events behind the Braggs’ Nobel prize and a summary of WLB’s career in the book’s foreword. Glazer also relates the events that led to the present volume (the original material for which he edited “with the lightest of touches”) and adds succinct footnotes throughout. This material is essential to fully appreciate the story being told.

The ensuing chapters are personal recollections from WLB, Lady Alice and their younger daughter Patience Thomson. There is of course plenty of science, but at heart this is a love story, of the kind that encompasses so much more than just romance: it is also about family, ancestry, children, gardening, sketching, painting, sailing, bird-watching and (especially) holidays. We see the enduring, loving relationship between WLB and Lady Alice, and we develop a picture of the family as a very normal one confronted by abnormal events. The Braggs experienced the very pinnacle of scientific achievement and mixed socially and professionally with other scientists at the very top (as well as leading politicians and royalty), but they also endured two world wars and the loss of close family members and friends. And they were not immune to the enormous changes in society in the 20th century, especially for women.

Patience Thomson’s portion of the book, entitled Meet My Mother and Father, provides a personal perspective on her parents and siblings, including her thoughts about some incidents that are also mentioned in the autobiographies of WLB and Lady Alice. In addition, her account features some wonderful material not found elsewhere. Many quite surprising images are evoked in these passages, among them that of WLB mowing the lawn of a friend, Lady Thomson (the widow of J J Thomson, discoverer of the electron), using a mower “pulled by a pony wearing leather booties, so as not to make holes in the lawn”.

William Lawrence Bragg (In His Own Words) is more formal, and commences with the author’s birth in 1890 in Adelaide, South Australia, where his father (WHB) was professor of mathematics and experimental physics. It describes his childhood growing up in Adelaide, followed by the family’s return to England with his father’s appointment at the University of Leeds in 1909. Unsurprisingly, WLB’s account covers in considerable detail the important scientific phases of his career: the appointment at Manchester, the National Physical Laboratory and the Cavendish Chair at Cambridge. We are given insight into physical science in the first half of the 20th century as experienced by one of its pre-eminent practitioners, and WLB’s account is peppered with the names of many other famous scientists from physics, chemistry and crystallography. His part of the family story ends quite abruptly, however, in 1951; the heavy demands that followed his move to the Royal Institution in 1954 apparently left little time for WLB to finish his account.

WLB mentions surprisingly little of his family background, but his wife takes a different tack. In Alice Grace Jenny Bragg: “The Half Was Not Told”, she relates many stories about her parent’s ancestors, the Hopkinsons and the Cunliffe-Owens. Her childhood and schooling are described in detail, including some fascinating extracts from her mother’s diary. According to her daughter Patience, Lady Alice was deeply religious, and the title of her account seems to come from a Biblical verse (1 Kings 10:7); it was perhaps intended to mean “half the story has never been told”. But while she was a devoted member of the Anglican High Church, her husband was “a blue sky worshipper”: he stayed at home and worked in the garden on Sundays.

Lady Alice’s account includes many anecdotes and observations on her family, close friends and scientific colleagues of WLB. Some of these are rather quaint and even somewhat surprising: on meeting her future father-in-law, for example, she writes that “Sir William Bragg was a large man, beaming genially but rather silent. He made pleasing noises, a way of communication common to scientists, I was to discover.”

Several events recounted in these autobiographies remind us that we are now a century past the tragic events of the First World War. This conflict greatly affected the family: Alice’s brother, Eric Hopkinson, was killed in Belgium in June 1915; Robert Bragg, WLB’s brother, died at Gallipoli in September 1915; and Cecil Hopkinson, Alice’s cousin, was wounded on the western front in 1915, dying in England in 1917. The family was also affected by, and sometimes intimately involved in, the social changes that occurred in the first half of the 20th century, many of which provide a background to specific events and recollections. Alice had numerous public roles, including Mayor of Cambridge (her official title was “His Worship Mr Mayor”), and she served on the Royal Commission for Marriage and Divorce for four years. The changing expectations of mothers are conveyed with humour in the delightful essay “Learning from daughters”, written by Lady Alice in 1966.

Lady Alice’s account finishes with WLB’s death in 1971, which was preceded by “five happy years of retirement living in Suffolk, where we could garden and WLB could paint”. Both WHB and WLB were talented artists, and the book includes numerous beautiful sketches by WLB as well as two by WHB (regrettably reproduced too small to fully appreciate his fine attention to detail). In his foreword, Glazer notes that “Crystallography is by its nature both a highly mathematical and a visual subject,” and many of its practitioners would certainly share this view.

Although Alice survived her husband by 18 years, the final words of her account appear to have been written soon after his death, and movingly sum up their journey together: “After that there is no more to be told. I have the joy of children, grandchildren and all our friends… I look back with gratitude, knowing that I have had the greatest of human experiences, that of loving and being loved.”

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