The combined autobiographies of the Royal Institution's first director, Sir William Lawrence Bragg and his wife Alice Bragg are now available in a wonderful edition, entitled 'Crystal Clear' for Bragg's achievements in crystallography.
In November 1915 William Bragg, just appointed Professor of Physics at University College London, and his son Lawrence Bragg, then serving on the Western Front, learnt that they had been awarded that year’s Nobel Prize for Physics.
This was for their work, which started in 1912, showing how X-rays could be used to determine the atomic structure of crystals. This was one of the key scientific discoveries of the 20th century – more Nobel Prizes (including for the double helical structure of DNA) have been awarded for X-ray crystallography than for any other subject.
Between 1923 and his death in 1942 William Bragg, Fullerian Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory, built up at the Royal Institution the world’s most important X-ray crystallography laboratory.
Between 1954 and 1966 Lawrence Bragg held the same positions as his father had done at the Royal Institution. In addition, in 1965 he was created the first Director of the Royal Institution as recognition of his turning the organisation around after the Andrade crisis of the early 1950s.
Both Lawrence Bragg and his wife Alice Bragg, wrote autobiographies, presumably with a view to publication which for various reasons did not happen during their lifetimes. Both are now published for the first time in an edition edited by A.M. Glazer (emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford) and Patience Thomson (Lawrence Bragg’s younger daughter).
Lawrence Bragg’s autobiography covers his upbringing in Australia, his service during the Great War, his time as Rutherford’s successor at the University of Manchester, Director of the National Physical Laboratory and then of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, ending just before his move to the Royal Institution.
Alice Bragg’s autobiography covers her childhood in Manchester, her time as a student in Cambridge (where she met Lawrence), and then the same events as Lawrence Bragg's, but from a rather different perspective, and including their time at the Royal Institution. Alice Bragg also records her own career, for example serving as Mayor of Cambridge at the end of the war of 1939 to 1945.
The two autobiographies in this single volume provide enormously valuable insights into the development of science during the 20th century and its place in broader culture and polity. The royalties from the book will be donated to the Royal Institution.
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