Chasing the facts of matter

Professor Frank Close has an unusual job. A theoretical physicist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Didcot, he spends a lot of time at the Cern laboratory, Zurich, chasing tiny particles of matter at very high speed around a circuit the length of the London Underground Circle line. He and other eminent scientists are studying Big […]

Professor Frank Close has an unusual job. A theoretical physicist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Didcot, he spends a lot of time at the Cern laboratory, Zurich, chasing tiny particles of matter at very high speed around a circuit the length of the London Underground Circle line.

He and other eminent scientists are studying Big Bang theories behind the creation of the earliest forms of matter.

`We are trying to understand how the universe was first created and what makes it tick,’ says Close. `We are looking for a basic truth and what that might lead to.’

Most experimental work is evolutionary, and Close’s public lecture, Happy Birthday to the Electron, at Rutherford Appleton this week, showed how his work and many aspects of life we take for granted, including television and computers, owe their existence to the discovery of the electron 100 years ago.

On 30 April 1897, Joseph John Thomson named his discovery the electron.

Thomson’s contribution came from experiments involving passing electric current through a vacuum tube. He observed a tiny green light at the end of the tube and, by applying magnets to its outside, was able to see how the light changed direction.

Effectively he was working with an `early prototype’ of a TV tube.

The importance of the discovery was that the particles carried a negative charge. Further, Rutherford concluded that all matter contained negatively charged electrons.

But it was an American, Thomas Alva Edison, who put electrons to work, with the invention of the electric light bulb.

The electron microscope and electron accelerator at Cern are modern equipment which function using electrons.

Computers use electronic switching to carry out fast calculations that could otherwise take several man-years. That has led to exponential growth in telecommunications, exemplified by the Internet.

To use the Internet, an open communications prototcol was invented at Cern about 10 years ago by an Englishman, Tim Berners-Lee. This is what we now know as the World Wide Web.

Another Englishman, Charles Babbage, with his 1850s calculating engine, is the father of modern computing.

Cole sees it as a neat twist of circumstance that Thomson’s electron is being used today to look at the earliest forms of matter using computers driven by electrons to analyse the results over the Web.

`The electron has come full circle,’ he says.

The lecture was sponsored by the University of Kent.