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110th anniversary of Nobel Prize winner Cecil Powell

Professor Powell looks over the city from the top of the HH Wills Physics Laboratory

Professor Powell looks over the city from the top of the HH Wills Physics Laboratory

5 December 2013

On 5 December, 110 years ago, Professor Cecil Powell was born. He went on to become known as one of the great experimental physicists of the 20th century, and won a Nobel Prize in 1950 for his cutting-edge work in nuclear energy and cosmic radiation.

After finishing his PhD, Cecil joined the University's School of Physics in 1927 to work in the new HH Wills Physics Laboratory – the most completely-equipped laboratory of its time. He was a dedicated Research Assistant to the influential Bristol physicist AM Tyndall, whose enterprise and initiative had attracted the generous support of the Wills family and the subsequent endowment of the purpose-built laboratory.

Cecil's journey to becoming listed among the greats began with a new technique he developed while examining cosmic rays from space. He put photographic plates on high mountains and sent them up into the atmosphere in unmanned balloons. He then examined the plates for tracks that he interpreted as subatomic particles - produced when cosmic rays collided with atoms in the atmosphere. This work led to the discovery of the pion (pi-meson), which proved to be the hypothetical particle proposed years before by Yukawa Hideki. Cecil was awarded the Noble Prize in 1950 for his work in this field.

Cecil wasn't just an outstanding researcher. He was also considered a remarkable lecturer, inspiring hundreds of students at Bristol, including Doreen Stoneman (BSc 1962): “I found the physics course very difficult, especially as many of the lecturers presented us with concepts which, for me, were way above my head. Cecil Powell was different. To start with we were all very proud of the fact that we had a Nobel Laureate as one of our lecturers. Secondly, his lectures were very clear and he spoke in a straightforward manner at our level.

"I remember how he would break off and exhort us all to go walking along Hadrian’s Wall to clear the cobwebs away. He went every year, and to this day whenever I see a picture of, or watch a programme on, Hadrian’s Wall, I think of him striding his way along its length.”

Cecil was a keen walker. But, after receiving the Royal Medal in 1961 and serving on the Scientific Policy Committee of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), his work came to an abrupt end on 9 August 1969 while walking in the foothills of the Alps. Today, you can find a bench there dedicated to his memory.