Thomson, Sir J(oseph) J(ohn)

Thomson, Sir J(oseph) J(ohn)

biographical name

(born Dec. 18, 1856, Cheetham Hill, near Manchester, Eng.—died Aug. 30, 1940, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire) English physicist. Educated at the University of Cambridge, he taught there at the Cavendish Laboratory (1884–1918), which he developed into a world-renowned institution, and was master of Trinity College (1918–40). In 1897 he showed that cathode rays are rapidly moving particles, and, by measuring their displacement by electric and magnetic fields, he determined that these particles were nearly 2,000 times less massive than the lightest known atomic particle. Originally called corpuscles by Thomson, the particles are now known as electrons. His discovery helped revolutionize the knowledge of atomic structure. In 1903 he suggested a discontinuous theory of light, foreshadowing Albert Einstein's later theory of photons. He later discovered isotopes and invented mass spectrometry. In 1906 Thomson received a Nobel Prize for his research into the electrical conductivity of gases. Throughout his life he was noted as an outstanding teacher, and seven of his assistants also became Nobel laureates.

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