Aristocratic titles that shaped physics teminology

William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire (public domain)

The 7th Duke of Devonshire

I recently read that the buildings of the old Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University are under threat of partial demolition, which led me to consider where the laboratory’s name came from. Most people who work in physics will have heard of the Cavendish, and may assume the laboratory, and the associated professorial chair, are named after Henry Cavendish, the man credited with discovering hydrogen, who also measured the density of the Earth, and carried out research into electricity. In fact, construction of the laboratory was funded by William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire. It was originally to be named the Devonshire Laboratory, but the first appointee as professor, James Clerk Maxwell, suggested it should be named the Cavendish instead, to honour not only its patron, but also the famous scientist, who happened to be the duke’s great uncle.1 Perhaps this was just as well. “The Devonshire” sounds as if it should instead be a hotel, or perhaps a brand of clotted cream. This raises the issue of the difference titles in the British peerage make to the names of buildings, positions and theorems named after distinguished people.

Oxford University’s equivalent of the Cavendish, the Clarendon Laboratory, was also named after a nobleman: Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, who, like Devonshire, also served as Chancellor of his university. In this instance, the laboratory was named after his title, as opposed to his surname. Had he not been an earl, Oxford could well have the Hyde Laboratory instead, which perhaps is where a Dr Jekyll would work.

Names of buildings is one thing, but do titles have an impact on names in physics itself? Returning to Cambridge, before Maxwell accepted the first Cavendish Chair, it was offered to and turned down by none other than Lord Kelvin. He was actually born William Thomson, but chose to take his title from a river that flows through Glasgow. He was eventually honoured by having the unit of temperature named after him. Had he not been made a peer, we might now be measuring temperatures in thomsons rather than kelvins! That could have caused confusion when it came to symbols, as T is now used for the unit of magnetic flux density, the tesla. T is also used in equations for the physical quantity of temperature. Fortunately, we don’t have to face such confusion as the Glaswegian river came to the rescue.

Lords Rayleigh (left) and Kelvin, c.1900 (public domain image)

Lords Rayleigh (left) and Kelvin, c.1900

Maxwell’s successor at the Cavendish was Lord Rayleigh. His name was originally John William Strutt, but he inherited the title from his father to become the 3rd Baron Rayleigh. He lends his name to Rayleigh scattering, which in simple terms is the answer to the most classic of all physics questions: why is the sky blue? “Strutt scattering” somehow wouldn’t sound quite as poetic. There is also a rather obscure unit of measurement in acoustics, the rayl, named after him. His son, the 4th Baron, followed up his father’s work on the sky’s light scattering, and as a result, another fairly obscure unit, the rayleigh, a measure of photon flux, is named after him.

There is further confusion for physics students when using American text books. The Americans don’t understand British titles, and therefore there are plenty of references to those famous physicists, John Strutt and William Thomson. The latter must surely have been the one who came up with Thomson’s model of the atom, the so-called “plum pudding”? No, in fact that was J. J. Thomson, Rayleigh’s successor as Cavendish professor. Thomson was never raised to the peerage, only receiving a mere kinghthood. But what if he had been? Perhaps he would have chosen the title Baron Cheetham, after his birthplace. That would have given us the Cheetham model of the atom, which perhaps sounds as if it was deliberately contrived to mislead people (cheat ’em!) Yet Thomson was disadvantaged by the fact the nucleus had not yet been discovered; it was hardly deliberate deception.

The discovery of the nucleus came about thanks to the work of Thomson’s successor at the Cavendish, Ernest Rutherford. He did receive a peerage, choosing the title Baron Rutherford of Nelson. Rutherford was unable to choose a purely geographical title based on his birthplace, Nelson in New Zealand, as a certain naval officer had beaten him to it. Otherwise, we may now have Nelson scattering, the Nelson Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, and an element in the periodic table called nelsonium.

What happened to the titles that helped shape physics terminology? After all, before 1958, all titles were hereditary. Lords Kelvin and Rutherford both died without any sons to inherit their titles, which then became extinct. Lord Rayleigh’s title lives on, with the present 6th Baron still living in the family’s manor house, Terling Place in Essex. As for the universities’ wealthy patrons, there is still a Duke of Devonshire and Earl of Cavendish. Today, peerages are still occasionally granted to renowned scientists, but they usually choose titles based on their surnames. Combined with the fact that physics is more collaborative these days, and therefore new discoveries are less frequently named after individuals, it’s unlikely we’ll see aristocratic titles making their mark on physics in the same way in the future. It can be fun to invent fantasy titles, though. Anyone like to suggest an alternate, aristocratic name for the Higgs boson?

1 Reference: “A new era for the old Cavendish?” Physics World, October 2015, p. 12 (not available online)

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