Today In Science History – October 6 – Ernest Walton and the First Particle Accelerator

Ernest Walton

Ernest Walton (1903-1995) First “atom smasher” Credit: Nobel Foundation

October 6 is Ernest Walton’s birthday. Walton was an Irish physicist who built the first nuclear particle accelerator along with John Cockcroft.

Walton worked in the laboratory of Ernest Rutherford and was tasked with creating a means of accelerating large amounts of charged particles to high energies. He had good ideas, but the available electrical sources were not up to the task. He was joined by John Cockcroft and they found a way to generate high voltages necessary to generate a stream of charged particles. Their generator converted a low power AC input to a high voltage DC output. This was accomplished by a series of diodes and capacitors that steadily increased the voltage.

They used their new generator to accelerate a stream of protons at a lithium target. When their detectors began to detect helium, they knew the protons were colliding with the lithium nuclei and breaking it apart. They were the first to artificially break an atom’s nucleus apart and form the first artificial nuclear reaction. The science of “atom-smashing” was born. This achievement would earn both men the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1950.

Notable Science Events for October 6

1995 – First planet discovered around a star like the Sun discovered.

51 Pegasi

51 Pegasi
Royal Observatory Edinburgh

51 Pegasi is a Sun-like star located 50 light-years from our sun in the constellation of Pegasus. It that was found to have a planet orbiting around the star and became the first Sun-like star to have a planet other than our Sun.

The planet, 51 Pegasi b, has been unofficially named Bellerophon. Its orbit is near its sun with gives it an estimated surface temperatures approximately 1200 ºC. The estimated mass is about half that of Jupiter

1951 – Otto Meyerhof died.

Otto Fritz Meyerhof

Otto Fritz Meyerhof (1884 – 1951)
Nobel Foundation

Meyerhof was a German biochemist who was awarded half the 1922 Nobel Prize in Medicine for describing the way muscle tissue absorbs oxygen and converts it to lactic acid. He discovered glycogen is converted into lactic acid when the muscle contracts. His research led the way to a more detailed explanation of the path from glycogen to lactic acid known as the Embden-Meyerhof pathway.

1931 – Riccardo Giacconi was born.

Riccardo Giacconi

Riccardo Giacconi (1931 – )

Giacconi is an Italian-American astrophysicist who was awarded half the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of x-ray astronomy and the discovery of cosmic x-ray sources. Cosmic x-ray sources are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere and required leaving the planet to observe them.

Giacconi designed many X-ray detecting instruments from the early days of rocketry to the current Chandra X-ray Observatory.

1903 – Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton was born.

1846 – George Westinghouse Jr. was born.

George Westinghouse Jr.

George Westinghouse Jr. (1846 – 1914)

Westinghouse was an American inventor/entrepreneur who competed directly with Thomas Edison over the development of America’s electrical system. Westinghouse already had interests in gas and telephone service distribution. He believed his experience could be applied to the upcoming need for electrical distribution. Edison’s distribution system involved the transmission of electricity by direct current. The drawback of this is the energy loss over distance. Unless the customer is nearby, most of the generated electricity is lost to heat. Westinghouse championed the alternating current method. Alternating current can be passed through transformers to alter the voltage and current where transmission losses are greatly reduced. This is the method electricity is transported today.

Westinghouse is also known for his invention of the air brake for trains. Before this invention, in order to stop a train, linemen had to go from car to car to apply brakes manually. After witnessing a wreck where they train was not stopped in time, he developed a means to channel compressed air to each car’s brakes to engage them all simultaneously. This invention is the basis for the braking system used by trains and large trucks in use today.

1799 – William Withering died.

William Withering

William Withering (1741 – 1799)

Withering was an English physician who discovered digitalis from foxglove and its use as a treatment for heart conditions.

He identified digitalis as the active ingredient from an herbal remedy given to people with “cardiac dropsy” or congestive heart failure. He conducted several studies to identify the toxicity and effects of digitalis.

1783 – François Magendie was born.

François Magendie

François Magendie (1783 – 1855)

Magendie was a French physician and physiologist who pioneered the field of experimental physiology. He proved and elaborated Charles Bell’s observation that the anerior roots of spinal nerves are motor in function, where the posterior roots communicate sensory impulses. He also studied the effects of many drugs on different parts of the body and introduced the use of morphine and strychnine in medical practices.

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