William Lawrence Bragg: Youngest Nobel Laureate in Physics


Although William Lawrence Bragg (1890−1971) is the second youngest Nobel Laureate after Malala Yousafzai, he is the youngest ever to receive it in a scientific field. At the age of 25, Bragg—along with his father—were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915 for their efforts in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays.

Lawrence Bragg was born in Adelaide, Australia, where his father was a Professor. He received his early education in his birthplace, and gained his first-class honors in mathematics in 1908 at Adelaide University when most boys were still in secondary school. When he was 19, the family moved to Great Britain, where he pursued his postgraduate studies.

The Braggs were fascinated by the work of German physicist Max von Laue (1879−1960). Laue had discovered that X-rays cause diffraction patterns to occur when it passes through crystals. From 1912 to 1914, father and son conducted their own studies in the area.

Young Bragg carried out a series of ingenious original experiments, as a result of which he published what is known as the Bragg Equation. Meanwhile, the father designed the X-ray spectrometer, a device to make exact measurements of X-ray wavelengths. Together, they managed to establish the relationship between the wavelength of the X-ray, its angle of incidence, and the distance between the atomic layers inside the crystal.

Their work—the Bragg Law of X-ray diffraction—provided a significant tool for studying crystals’ structures. Using diffraction pattern methods, it also became possible to calculate the positions of atoms in crystalline structures. Lawrence and his father published their findings in X-rays and Crystal Structure (1915), which earned them jointly the Nobel Prize for Physics in the same year.

Still a blooming young man, Lawrence Bragg continued to be a central figure within his scientific field. Among many other affiliations, he was a Professor in Manchester and Cambridge and at the Royal Institution in London.
You can investigate more about the Bragg’s Legacy through this documentary produced by the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901–1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967

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