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About William Lawrence Todd Bragg
Sir William Lawrence Bragg CH OBE MC FRS (31 March 1890 – 1 July 1971) was an Australian-born British physicist and X-ray crystallographer, discoverer (1912) of the Bragg law of X-ray diffraction, which is basic for the determination of crystal structure. He was joint winner (with his father, Sir William Bragg) of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915. He was knighted in 1941. To date, Lawrence Bragg is the youngest Nobel Laureate. He was the director of the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, when the epochal discovery of the structure of DNA was made by James D. Watson and Francis Crick in February 1953.
Bragg was born in North Adelaide, South Australia. He was an impressionable boy and showed an early interest in science and mathematics. His father, William Henry Bragg, was Elder Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Adelaide. Shortly after starting school aged 5, William Lawrence Bragg fell from his tricycle and broke his arm. His father, who had read about Röntgen's experiments in Europe and was performing his own experiments, used the newly discovered X-rays and his experimental equipment to examine the broken arm. This is the first recorded surgical use of X-rays in Australia.
Bragg was a very able student. After beginning his studies at St Peter's College, Adelaide in 1904 he went to the University of Adelaide at age 14 to study mathematics, chemistry and physics, graduating in 1908. In the same year his father accepted the Cavendish chair of physics at the University of Leeds, and brought the family back to England. Bragg entered Trinity College, Cambridge in the autumn of 1909 and received a major scholarship in mathematics, despite taking the exam while in bed with pneumonia. After initially excelling in mathematics, he transferred to the physics course in the later years of his studies, and graduated with first class honours in 1911. In 1914 Bragg was elected to a Fellowship at Trinity College — a Fellowship at a Cambridge college involves the submission and defence of a thesis.
Work on X-ray crystallography
Bragg is most famous for his law on the diffraction of X-rays by crystals. Bragg's law makes it possible to calculate the positions of the atoms within a crystal from the way in which an X-ray beam is diffracted by the crystal lattice. He made this discovery in 1912, during his first year as a research student in Cambridge. He discussed his ideas with his father, who developed the X-ray spectrometer in Leeds. This tool allowed many different types of crystals to be analyzed.
Work on sound ranging
Bragg's research work was interrupted by both World War I and World War II. During both wars he worked on sound ranging methods for locating enemy guns. In this work he was aided by William Sansome Tucker, Harold Roper Robinson and Henry Harold Hemming. For his work during WWI he was awarded the Military Cross and appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He was also Mentioned in Despatches on 16 June 1916, 4 January 1917 and 7 July 1919.
On 2 September 1915 his brother was killed during the Gallipoli Campaign. Shortly afterwards, William Lawrence Bragg received the news that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, aged 25, making him the youngest ever winner of a Nobel Prize.
Between the wars, from 1919 to 1937, he worked at the Victoria University of Manchester as Langworthy Professor of Physics. After World War II, he returned to Cambridge, splitting the Cavendish Laboratory into research groups. He believed that "the ideal research unit is one of six to twelve scientists and a few assistants".
Work on proteins
In 1948 he became interested in the structure of proteins and was partly responsible for creating a group that used physics to solve biological problems. He played a part in the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA, in that he provided support to Francis Crick and James D. Watson who worked under his aegis at the Cavendish.
Bragg's original announcement of the discovery of the structure of DNA was made at a Solvay conference on proteins in Belgium on 8 April 1953, but went unreported by the press. He then gave a talk at Guys Hospital Medical School in London on Thursday 14 May 1953, which resulted in an article by Ritchie Calder in The News Chronicle of London on Friday 15 May 1953, entitled "Why You Are You. Nearer Secret of Life."
Bragg was gratified to see that the X-ray method that he developed forty years before was at the heart of this profound insight to the nature of life itself. At the same time at the Cavendish, Max Perutz was also doing his Nobel Prize winning work on the structure of hemoglobin. Bragg subsequently successfully lobbied for, and nominated, Crick, Watson and Maurice Wilkins for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; Wilkins' share recognized the contribution made by researchers (using X-ray crystallography) at King's College London to the determination of the structure of DNA. Among those researchers was Rosalind Franklin, whose "photograph 51" showed that DNA was a double helix, not a triple helix as Linus Pauling had proposed. Franklin died before the prize (which only goes to living people) was awarded.
The 310 helix was found for the first time in lysozyme by D C Phillips et al.(1965) under the directorship of Lawrence Bragg at the Royal Institution,London. The crystals of hen egg white lysozyme chloride are tetragonal a = b = 9.1, c = 37.9 angstroms and space group P43212. A turn of 310 helix, as opposed to Pauling's alpha helix, was discovered in an enzyme, lysozyme. Apparently, many workers failed to mention the discovery of the 310 helix, and failed to acknowledge the part it plays in the lysozyme structure. Pauling never acknowledged that at least part of the 1950 paper by Bragg W L, Kendrew J C & Perutz M F made sense.
Unlike myoglobin, in which nearly 80 per cent of the amino-acid residues are in the alpha-helix conformation, in the lysozyme protein the alpha-helix content is only about 40 per cent of the amino-acid residues in four main stretches. The 310 helix is an earlier proposal for the structure of polypeptides made by Bragg W L, Kendrew J C & Perutz M F in 1950. It is based on the crystallographic idea of an integral number of residues per turn of the helix. In this conformation, every third peptide is hydrogen-bonded back to the first peptide, thus forming a ring containing ten atoms.
He married Alice Hopkinson in 1921. They had four children, Stephen Lawrence, David William, Margaret Alice (who married Mark Heath) and Patience Mary. He died at a hospital near his home at Waldringfield, Ipswich, Suffolk. Bragg's hobbies included painting, literature and a life-long interest in gardening. When he moved to London, he missed having a garden and so worked as a part-time gardener, unrecognised by his employer, until a guest at the house expressed surprise at seeing him there.
Honours and awards
He was elected an FRS in 1921—"a qualification that makes other ones irrelevant". He was knighted by King George VI in the 1941 New Year Honours, and received both the Copley Medal and the Royal Medal of the Royal Society. Although Hunter, in his book on Bragg Light is a Messenger, argued that he was more a crystallographer than a physicist, Bragg's lifelong activity showed otherwise—he was more of a physicist than anything else. Thus, from 1939 to 1943, he served as President of the Institute of Physics, London. In the 1967 New Year Honours he was appointed Companion of Honour by Queen Elizabeth II.
Since 1992, the Australian Institute of Physics has awarded the Bragg Gold Medal for Excellence in Physics to commemorate Sir Lawrence Bragg (in front on the medal) and his father, Sir William Bragg, for the best PhD thesis by a student at an Australian university.
- Nobel Prize (1915)
- Matteucci Medal (1915)
- Hughes Medal (1931)
- Royal Medal (1946)
- Guthrie Lecture (1952)
- Copley Medal (1966)