A Father, A Son and a Nobel Prize


The prologue to the book “X-Rays and Crystal Structure” states all the customary things that you’d expect to find in a scientific text. It conveys gratitude towards its contributors, explains a general hypothesis, describes the challenges faced. However, a few pages allude to remarkable events and the individuals behind it.

The author behind the book’s preface is William Henry Bragg, and he says that his oldest child, William Lawrence, is responsible for the core idea of the text —presently known as Bragg’s Law.

The father-son duo’s association with X-ray unexpectedly started in 1895 when a then five-year-old W.L. Bragg tumbled off his trike and broke his elbow. At that point, X-rays were in their exploratory stage. W.H. Bragg was a professor of maths and material science at the University of Adelaide and had been conducting his own X-ray experiments. Bragg utilized his equipment to check his child’s fractured arm.

Later, during the summer of 1912, W.H. Bragg informed his son W.L Bragg about a book by Max von Laue, who believed that X-rays could diffract through crystals. This inspired young W.L Bragg to conduct experiments on his own, while W.H Bragg started working on developing an X-ray spectrometer, on measuring wavelengths of the X-ray. They combined their research, and a new theory emerged.

When WWI broke out in 1914, W.L Bragg was enlisted in the British army that was headquartered in France. There, he worked as a technical adviser and helped locate the enemy gunfire. W.L Bragg’s work during the war earned him a Military Cross. His work on the X-ray earned him and his father the Nobel Prize while he was still with the British army in France, at just 25 years old. The Braggs remain the only father-son pair Nobel Laureates.

Post the war, W.H Bragg worked as a professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. W.L Bragg worked as a physics professor at the University of Manchester. Both these men were knighted for their many years of contribution.

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