‘The Braggs’ are a big deal in South Australia. There are busts on the main street, a very fancy, new building named after them at the University of Adelaide and even a beautiful children’s book about their accomplishments. Even RiAus gets caught up in Bragg Fever every year and honours them. But that doesn’t really tell us much, yes, they’re famous and apparently important to science, but why?
Who were the Braggs?
Sir William Henry Bragg (the elder one) was born in England, but immigrated to Australia and in 1886 became a ‘Sir Thomas Elder Professor of Pure and Applied Mathematics’. Obviously a great honour and a hint to the immense intellect of this man. His son, William Lawrence Bragg was Adelaide born and bred. He attended the University of Adelaide under his father and eventually joined him in his research. This was the first step on their journey to notoriety.
Why are they famous?
Well, for starters, the Braggs are Nobel laureate winners. They won the prize in Physics in 1915. Not only were they the first father and son duo to do so, but William Lawrence Bragg was the youngest person at the time to be awarded with such an honor. He was 25 at the time. Their work with X-rays used crystallography to figure out the density, size and shape of atoms. It was revolutionary work that still has an effect on us today.
But, they also did a tonne of other research across applied mathematics and physics. Not to mention their lasting imprint upon the scientific community as lecturers and teachers. There’s a very good reason that they were inspiring enough to have a children’s book written about their lives.
Why do we care?
Beyond the fact that winning a Nobel Prize is an amazing achievement, there are a number of reasons why we should care about The Braggs. For starters, they are from Adelaide. It’s nice to know that you could be walking down the very streets that the Bragg men did while they contemplated the use of crystallography in further understanding and embracing X-rays. But, more than that, their research has changed every single one of our lives. Without their research, the X-rays of today would not be as clear and simple to understand. We would also have a much smaller appreciation for the atoms that make up, well, everything in the entire universe.
So, even there’s a pretty good reason why Sir William Henry and William Lawrence constantly get mentioned throughout South Australia. They may have won the Nobel Prize 100 years ago, but their work and their presence has a lasting and incredibly important impact on all of us. No matter where in the world we live.