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J.J. Thomson
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Scientist
    (December 18, 1856-August 30, 1940)
    Born in Manchester, England, United Kingdom
    Birth name was Joseph John Thomson
    Credited with discovering the electron after showing that cathode rays were composed of negatively charged particles with a mass 1/1000th of a hydrogen atom (1897)
    Was also discovery of the first subatomic particle
    Developed the field of mass spectrometry
    Demonstrated that neon came in two forms, with atomic masses of 20 and 22, the first known isotope of a non-radioactive element (1912)
    Won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1906)
    Knighted (1908)
    He became a physicist by default: his family had wanted him to be an engineer, but could not afford the fee required for an apprenticeship.
    He was named director of Cambridge's Cavendish Lab before he had actually done much laboratory work (1884).
    One biographer suggested that his impoverished childhood made him reluctant to purchase expensive apparatus, leading to the Cavendish Labs' 'sealing wax and string' reputation, where everyday materials were used to make and patch up the equipment.
    His 'plum pudding' model of the atom, in which negative electrons were embedded in a positively-charged sphere, was quickly superseded by Ernest Rutherford's nuclear model, with a small positively-charged nucleus orbited by electrons.
    The 'sealing wax and string' tradition had more to do with Cambridge's chronic underfunding of the Cavendish Lab than an excess of thrift on Thomson's part.
    He was considered a genius in designing lab apparatus and diagnosing problems in equipment.
    His discovery of particles smaller than atoms touched off a revolution in physics.
    Seven of his students would win Nobel Prizes of their own.
    His son George Paget Thomson also won a Nobel Prize in Physics, for his work in demonstrating the particle-wave duality of the electron (1937).

Credit: C. Fishel


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