Cloudy inspiration

Although we are focussed on rescuing the weather data taken by the meteorologists, the observatory at the summit of Ben Nevis is also famous for providing the inspiration for C.T.R. Wilson to invent the cloud chamber.

This invention, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1927, was used to track particles as they passed through super-saturated air. The cloud chamber was later used to make other Nobel Prize winning discoveries of new fundamental particles such as the positron.

From his wikipedia page:

He became particularly interested in meteorology, and in 1893 he began to study clouds and their properties. Beginning in 1894, he worked for some time at the observatory on Ben Nevis, where he made observations of cloud formation. He was particularly fascinated by the appearance of glories. He then tried to reproduce this effect on a smaller scale at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, expanding humid air within a sealed container. He later experimented with the creation of cloud trails in his chamber by condensation onto ions generated by radioactivity.

Marjory Roy, who wrote a book about the Ben Nevis observatory, notes that:

Wilson was a visiting meteorologist at the observatory on Ben Nevis for two weeks from 8th to 22nd September 1894. The weather was exceptionally fine during the whole of that month with anti-cyclonic conditions and very low rainfall. There were days with exceptionally low humidity at the summit and fog/low cloud filling the valleys, so that is why he saw the glories and other optical phenomena. If he had been there in more typical damp, miserable hill-fog conditions he might never have wanted to work on clouds!

And, from CTR Wilson’s speech at the Nobel Prize banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1927:

… in the autumn of 1894 I spent a few weeks on a cloudy Scottish hill-top – the top of Ben Nevis. Morning after morning I saw the sun rise above a sea of clouds and the shadow of the hill on the clouds below surrounded by gorgeous coloured rings. The beauty of what I saw made me fall in love with clouds and I made up my mind to make experiments to learn more about them.

To those few weeks spent on the highest point of my native land I owe many happy years of work in the laboratory and not a few exciting moments – and perhaps my presence here tonight!


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