JJ Thomson Essay Research Paper Joseph John

J.J Thomson Essay, Research Paper

Joseph John Thomson was born on December 18, 1856 near Manchester, England. His father died when

“J.J..” was only sixteen. The young Thomson attended Owens College in Manchester, where his professor of

mathematics encouraged him to apply for a scholarship at Trinity College, one of the most prestigious of the

colleges at Cambridge University. Thomson won the scholarship, and in 1880 finished second in his class in

the grueling graduation examination in mathematics. Trinity gave him a fellowship and he stayed on there,

trying to craft mathematical models that would reveal the nature of atoms and electromagnetic forces.

One hundred years ago, amidst glowing glass tubes and the hum of electricity, the British physicist

J.J.. Thomson went venturing into the interior of the atom. At the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge

University, Thomson was experimenting with currents of electricity inside empty glass tubes. He was

investigating a long-standing puzzle known as “cathode rays.” His experiments prompted him to make a bold

proposal: these mysterious rays are streams of particles much smaller than atoms, they are in fact minuscule

pieces of atoms. He called these particles “corpuscles,” and suggested that they might make up all of the

matter in atoms. It was startling to imagine a particle residing inside the atom–most people thought that the

atom was indivisible, the most fundamental unit of matter.

Thomson’s speculation was not explicitly supported by his experiments. It took more experimental

work by Thomson and others to sort out the confusion. The atom is now known to contain other particles as

well. Yet Thomson’s bold suggestion that cathode rays were material constituents of atoms turned out to be

correct. The rays are made up of electrons: very small, negatively charged particles that are indeed

fundamental parts of every atom.

Modern ideas and technologies based on the electron, leading to television and the computer and

much else, evolved through many difficult steps. Thomson’s careful experiments and adventurous hypotheses

were followed by crucial experimental and theoretical work by many others in the United Kingdom,

Germany, France and elsewhere. These physicists opened for us a new perspective–a view from inside the


First, in a variation of an 1895 experiment by Jean Perrin, Thomson built a cathode ray tube ending

in a pair of metal cylinders with a slit in them. These cylinders were in turn connected to an electrometer, a

device for catching and measuring electrical charge. Perrin had found that cathode rays deposited an electric

charge. Thomson wanted to see if, by bending the rays with a magnet, he could separate the charge from the

rays. He found that when the rays entered the slit in the cylinders, the electrometer measured a large amount

of negative charge. The electrometer did not register much electric charge if the rays were bent so they

would not enter the slit. As Thomson saw it, the negative charge and the cathode rays must somehow be

stuck together: you cannot separate the charge from the rays.

All attempts had failed when physicists tried to bend cathode rays with an electric field. Now

Thomson thought of a new approach. A charged particle will normally curve as it moves through an electric

field, but not if it is surrounded by a conductor (a sheath of copper, for example). Thomson suspected that

the traces of gas remaining in the tube were being turned into an electrical conductor by the cathode rays

themselves. To test this idea, he took great pains to extract nearly all of the gas from a tube, and found that

now the cathode rays did bend in an electric field after all.

Thomson concluded from these two experiments, “I can see no escape from the conclusion that

[cathode rays] are charges of negative electricity carried by particles of matter.” But, he continued, “What

are these particles? are they atoms, or molecules, or matter in a still finer state of subdivision?”

Thomson’s third experiment sought to determine the basic properties of the particles. Although he couldn’t

measure directly the mass or the electric charge of such a particle, he could measure how much the rays

were bent by a magnetic field, and how much energy they carried. From this data he could calculate the ratio

of the mass of a particle to its electric charge (m/e). He collected data using a variety of tubes and using

different gases.

Theories about the atom proliferated in the wake of Thomson’s 1897 work. If Thomson had found

the single building block of all atoms, how could atoms be built up out of these corpuscles? Thomson

proposed a model, sometimes called the “plum pudding” or “raisin cake” model, in which thousands of tiny,

negatively charged corpuscles swarm inside a sort of cloud of massless positive charge. This theory was

struck down by Thomson’s own former student, Ernest Rutherford. Using a different kind of particle beam,

Rutherford found evidence that the atom has a small core, a nucleus. Rutherford suggested that the atom

might resemble a tiny solar system, with a massive, positively charged center circled by only a few electrons.

Later this nucleus was found to be built of new kinds of particles (protons and neutrons), much heavier than


The results were astounding. Just as Emil Wiechert had reported earlier that year, the

mass-to-charge ratio for cathode rays turned out to be over one thousand times smaller than that of a

charged hydrogen atom. Either the cathode rays carried an enormous charge (as compared with a charged

atom), or else they were amazingly light relative to their charge.

The choice between these possibilities was settled by Philipp Lenard. Experimenting on how

cathode rays penetrate gases, he showed that if cathode rays were particles they had to have a very small

mass–far smaller than the mass of any atom. The proof was far from conclusive. But experiments by others

in the next two years yielded an independent measurement of the value of the charge (e) and confirmed this

remarkable conclusion.

Thomson boldly announced the hypothesis that “we have in the cathode rays matter in a new state,

a state in which the subdivision of matter is carried very much further than in the ordinary gaseous state: a

state in which all matter… is of one and the same kind; this matter being the substance from which all the

chemical elements are built up.” Thomson presented three hypotheses about cathode rays based on his 1897

experiments: Cathode rays are charged particles (which he called “corpuscles”), these corpuscles are

constituents of the atom, and the corpuscles are the only constituents of the atom.

Thomson’s speculations met with some skepticism. The second and third hypotheses were

especially controversial (the third hypothesis indeed turned out to be false). Years later he recalled, “At first

there were very few who believed in the existence of these bodies smaller than atoms. I was even told long

afterwards by a distinguished physicist who had been present at my lecture at the Royal Institution that he

thought I had been ‘pulling their legs.’”

On January 2, 1890, J.J. married Rose Paget. They had 2 kids. His son, George Thomson also

went into the field of atomics. Throughout the marriage, the word “electron,” coined by G. Johnstone

Stoney in 1891, had been used to denote the unit of charge found in experiments that passed electric current

through chemicals. In this sense the term was used by Joseph Larmor, J.J.. Thomson’s Cambridge classmate.

Larmor devised a theory of the electron that described it as a structure in the ether. But Larmor’s theory did

not describe the electron as a part of the atom. When it was discovered in 1897 that Thomson’s corpuscles

were really “free electrons,” he was actually disagreeing with Thomson’s hypotheses. FitzGerald had in mind

the kind of “electron” described by Larmor’s theory.

Gradually scientists accepted Thomson’s first and second hypotheses, although with some subtle

changes in their meaning. Experiments by Thomson, Lenard, and others through the crucial year of 1897

were not enough to settle the uncertainties. In 1906, Thomson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work and

in 1918 he became the master of his college. J.J. deceased on August 30th, 1940. Real understanding

required many more experiments over later years


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