Bragg Centenary Celebrations

How a Father and Son Changed the World

Science as we know it at Diamond began 100 years ago, when a father and son team became the first to use a technique called X-ray crystallography. William and Lawrence Bragg discovered that by exposing crystals to X-rays, they could use the pattern produced to reveal exactly how the atoms were arranged. From this, the hugely influential Bragg’s law was deduced, which provides a formula by which scientists can work out the atomic structure of a sample based on the diffraction pattern created when X-ray light passes through it.

X-ray crystallography has fostered some of the most important advances of modern science. From the race to solve the structure of DNA to contemporary research into HIV and cancer treatments, the Braggs’ work has supported countless scientific advances and shaped the modern world.

Diamond Light Source wouldn’t exist were it not for the Braggs’ work. And so on this, the 100th anniversary of the creation of Bragg’s Law, the synchrotron played host to celebrations that paid tribute to the team’s contributions to science.

As part of the STFC’s Talking Science series, Diamond organised a public lecture on the Braggs’ life and work, featuring John Jenkin, expert on the Braggs and Professor Thomas Sorensen, a Diamond scientist indebted to the Braggs for their work on crystallography. Patience Thomson, daughter of Lawrence Bragg, was our special guest for the evening.
John Jenkin has written the world’s most comprehensive account of the lives of William Henry and Lawrence Bragg. For John, the story of the Braggs is one of great achievements coupled with a lack of recognition. “The Braggs pioneered and then led the worldwide use of X-ray crystallography to explore the inner structures of the huge variety of materials that make up our world”; he continues, “I’m driven to this research by what seems to me inadequate recognition for the huge contribution this father and son team made to the scientific community and the world”.
John sought to remedy this historical oversight by chronicling the life and times of the pair in his book William and Lawrence Bragg, Father and Son, which recounts the history of the Bragg family, the complex relationship between father and son, and the years leading up to their monumental discovery. John also starred in Diamond’s Bragg centenary celebrations, delivering a series of lectures that brought the story of the pair to a combined audience of approximately 400.
Patience Thomson is the daughter of Lawrence Bragg, who was the younger of the Bragg team. Patience remembers her father as a kind man, who loved his family as dearly as he loved his work. She recalls, “he would always be happy to do the washing up, because he had some of his best ideas at the sink”! Patience spent a lot of time with her father and has very fond memories of him. He encouraged her and told her she could do anything she set her mind to; with just a word of fatherly caution that it was necessary to find out as much as you could about the mountain you were climbing so that you avoided reaching the summit and being disappointed by what you found there. Patience was joined at the Bragg centenary celebrations by her husband David Thomson, whose father George Thomson was a close friend of Lawrence Bragg and had himself won a Nobel Prize in 1937 for discovering that electrons also have a wave nature. David’s grandfather J.J. Thomson also won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the electron.
This impressive array of descendants and experts met to highlight the profound achievements of William Henry and Lawrence Bragg. Only now, a century after their greatest discovery, is the significance of the Braggs’ work being fully recognised. Without their research into X-ray crystallography and diffraction, we would be without some of the world’s most important discoveries, from antibiotics to space travel. The Braggs’ work revolutionised science in the twentieth century. Research that has used the ideas described in Lawrence Bragg’s 1913 paper has subsequently led to around 20 Nobel Prizes being awarded in the field of crystallography. They may have been overlooked by the annals of history, but they will not remain unsung heroes for long. Diamond’s Bragg centenary celebration have gone at least some of way to achieving for the Braggs the recognition they so rightly deserve.