Evan James Williams: Atomic Physicist

Roland Wynne published Evan James Williams: Ffisegydd yr Atom (University of Wales Press, 2017) in Welsh and its English translation Evan James Williams: Atomic Physicist (University of Wales Press, 2020). Below we give some information about this book including extracts from the Preface and from reviews.
  1. From the Publisher.

    This book presents the life and work of Professor Evan James Williams, described as one of Wales's most eminent scientists. Williams played a prominent part in the early twentieth-century revolution in physics with the emergence of quantum science, and was an able experimentalist and accomplished theoretician who made notable contributions in atomic physics and the discovery of a new elementary particle. From humble beginnings in rural Cardiganshire, his stellar career is charted in this book as he climbed the academic ladder at a number of universities, culminating in his appointment as Professor of Physics at Aberystwyth, and election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society. During the Second World War, Williams was instrumental in applying Operational Research to thwart the threat of German submarines in the Atlantic; his career was cut short, however, by his early death in 1945.

  2. From the Preface.

    Like many others, I have fond memories of my time studying physics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, at the beginning of the 1960s. This is not surprising, bearing in mind the vibrancy of student life. But in addition to 'extra-curricular' activities, memories remain of a number of lectures and laboratory sessions. Among them, I remember a lecture given by Morrice Job - on atomic physics, I believe - in which he drew our attention to one of the previous heads of department who had been seconded on government service during the Second World War, but who had died tragically before he would return to Aberystwyth. His name was Evan James Williams, and the lecturer's pride in his brilliance was evident. I imagine that this is what impressed me. Every one of those present received copies of two reprints describing Williams's pioneering work at Aberystwyth; the copies I was given then remain in my possession.

    Over the years, I carne across Williams's name from time to time. Shortly after leaving Aberystwyth, I read an article on Williams by Idris Jones in one of the early numbers of Y Gwyddonydd. Some time later, I obtained a second-hand copy of a book edited by J Tysul Jones comprising a series of articles and tributes marking twenty-five years since Williams's death. Reading the book deepened my awareness of, and respect for, him. Then, in 1995, fifty years after his death, I learnt that the Institute of Physics had placed a plaque on the house where Williams had grown up in Cwmsychbant, Cardiganshire, marking his birthplace and the role he played in the development of physics in the twentieth century.

    A few years ago, whilst on holiday in Copenhagen, a friend and I took the opportunity to visit the Niels Bohr Archive, which houses documents including correspondence related to the world-renowned physicist after whom it is named. The archive is located in the Niels Bohr Institutet, the University of Copenhagen's physics department, and it was a pleasant surprise to see a photograph of Williams on one of the archive walls. The photograph recorded the year spent by Williams working with Bohr at the Institutet in Copenhagen, and we also read the correspondence between Bohr and Williams (more than fifty letters) held in the archive. The visit led to the preparation of an article outlining the relationship between Bohr and three scientists from Wales, with Williams being one of the three. Whilst preparing the article, I came across a book by Goronwy Evans about Williams and his family, in which there is a picture of a seminar held at the Institutet (known prior to Bohr's death as Universitetet Institut for Teoretisk Fysik), with Williams sitting in amongst some of the foremost physicists of the time.

    Williams was a name, therefore, that recurred over the years. There was also a family link in that I am distantly related to William Lewis, headmaster at Llandysul County School during the time Williams was a pupil, and who was an important influence in guiding the boy towards mathematics and physics. For me, there was also a certain poignancy in relating that had Williams not died prematurely, and had he stayed at Aberystwyth, it is more than likely that I would have attended his lectures.

    When I was invited to prepare Williams's biography, I had little idea where the journey would take me, and there was some concern as to whether I would be able to find sufficient material for the book. Slowly, however, pursuing numerous trails, doors began to open and new information gradually emerged. Nevertheless, evidence pertaining to certain periods in Williams's life remains sparse; this is particularly true of aspects of his personal life and, accordingly, there are gaps that remain unfilled.

    Williams's career was influenced not only by the revolution in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century, but also by the conflicts of that century - this is not surprising, given the prominent role played by German physicists in that revolution. As many of them were German Jews, the spread of fascism during the 1930s cast a deep shadow. Later, the role of scientists on both sides of the conflict was crucial during the Second World War, and the biography attempts to reflect this.

    The following is a brief summary of the contents.

    Chapter 1 outlines Williams's rural upbringing and his time at school before becoming a student at the newly established University College Swansea. Here his interest in physics blossomed and the opportunity to undertake research gave him a taste for the challenges and rewards involved.

    Placing Williams's achievements in context, Chapter 2 turns to the revolution in physics that occurred during the first decades of the twentieth century. This revolution stemmed from the development of quantum physics that formed a backdrop to Williams's career. The chapter concentrates on the basic concepts of the new physics and also introduces some of the most prominent scientists with whom Williams corresponded and subsequently worked. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 return to Williams's life and work.

    Chapter 3 describes the completion of his apprenticeship at the universities of Manchester and Cambridge, and his emergence as an atomic physicist. As a consequence, he was awarded three doctorates and was appointed to his first post as lecturer in the Department of Physics at the University of Manchester. Chapter 4 describes the year Williams spent on sabbatical leave at the University of Copenhagen, after gaining a Rockefeller fellowship that allowed him to work with Niels Bohr. This period proved to be crucial in his development as a physicist of note, and also gave him the opportunity to meet and get to know some of the most distinguished physicists of the time.

    Chapter 5 charts his return to Manchester, where he continued to gain prominence. Williams was appointed to a senior post in the Department of Physics at the University of Liverpool, and subsequently to the Chair of Physics and Head of the Department of Physics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Recognition of his standing amongst British scientists came with his election to a fellowship of the Royal Society. In addition, he played a prominent part in the discovery of a new fundamental particle.

    Williams's world changed with the onset of the Second World War, and this is the subject of Chapter 6 . He was invited to join the campaign to withstand and overcome the threat of German submarines in the Atlantic, and this was to be his responsibility throughout the war. It is generally accepted that Williams played a crucial role in the success of that campaign.

    With the end of the Second World War, Williams and fellow physicists could look forward to a flourishing future as governments recognised the role of physics In developing new weapons. But, as outlined in Chapter 7, he soon became seriously ill and, unable to resume his duties at Aberystwyth, he died at the early age of 42. Chapter 8 brings the story to a close , and provides an overview of Williams's life as a scientist and as an individual.

    Naturally, aspects of physics discussed during the course of the book are likely to be challenging for many readers; this is particularly true of Chapter 2. Nevertheless, this need not be an obstacle since it should be possible to follow the flow of the narrative without having to wrestle with unfamiliar concepts. The reader is urged to do this where necessary.

    In collecting material, the contents of the biographies of eminent scientists proved beneficial. Even where there were no direct references to Williams, they provided descriptions of events, locations and the careers of those scientists, all of which influenced his career. I have also taken the opportunity to refer where relevant to other scientists from Wales. Information about the publications that were of particular assistance is listed in the Bibliography at the end of the book.

  3. Endorsement by Rhys Morris, University of Bristol.

    Rowland Wynne describes the physics behind everything in a skilful way without intimidating readers with formulas. So anyone interested in the life of one of our brightest scientists can follow the topic and gain an understanding of what he has achieved. Further descriptions can be found in the notes at the end of the book for those who would like more detail. But I would like to stress that this book is completely suitable for lay people, and the author notes the avoidable parts for readers who do not want to see the technical details.

  4. Endorsement by: Hefin Jones, The Essayist, July 2018.

    Rowland Wynne introduced science that is not easily understood in a comprehensible way; we see the grandeur of Desin's scholarship but this is presented in a delicate and honest texture with his humanity - his peasant, Welsh, chapel background; his relationships with others; his successes and disappointments. A masterpiece of historical and scientific text, polished and readable, in our first language.

  5. Endorsement by: Professor Glyn O. Phillips, Glyndwr University.

    A warm and readable portrait of Wales's greatest atomic scientist - the volume captures the excitement of the creative partnership between Williams and the pioneering scientists of the time, such as Bragg, Bohr, Blackett and others. A pearl of a book.

  6. Endorsement by: Professor Geraint Vaughan, University of Manchester

    Evan James Williams was a pioneer in two fields - modern physics and applied research - that have made a huge impact on our world today. This volume presents the man's history and his work from a Welsh and international perspective, clearly illustrating why we should remember him as one of the greats of the nation.

  7. Endorsement by: Professor Sir John Meurig Thomas, Former Director of the Royal Institution, and Former Master of St Peter's College, Cambridge University.

    Evan James Williams is one of the most brilliant scientists our nation has ever produced, and this magnificent book does justice to his career in a brilliantly composed whole - the layman can understand the real romance of the science and enjoy the fascinating stories described by Rowland Wynne.

  8. Endorsement by: Professor Andrew Evans, Aberystwyth University.

    E J Williams was one of Wales' brightest scientists who became renowned on the international stage for his pioneering work in particle physics. Aberystwyth University's Department of Physics is proud that Williams carried out his transformation experiments at Old College, and this book is a wonderful record of his contribution, inspiration and genius.

  9. Review by: Jon Gower.
    Nation Cymru (29 August 2020).

    The portrait painted of Evan James Williams is of a man driven by ideas, who managed to balance experimental proofs in the laboratory with the elasticity of theory, culminating in proving the validity of quantum physics for high energy electrons moving at speeds close to the speed of light which represented  probably Williams greatest single contribution to theory according to fellow scientist Patrick Blackett. His dedication to his work meant sacrificing relationships with women, but the book also shows a man with flaws, not least when it came to driving, and who had a curious habit of constantly checking his weight.
    Independent scholar Rowland Wynne s account of the life of this brilliant and gifted scientist needs must explain the physics along the way and he does so with clarity and concision, so that the general reader gets at least a basic understanding of the complexities of such theories as the so-called Bragg-Williams order-disorder model, which explains what happens when alloys of metal are cooled or heated. It also depicts a new world order in physics, aided by the creation of cyclotrons, the discovery of new sub-atomic particles and an understanding of cosmic rays and one where new ideas about black holes appeared even as the Manhattan project put atomic energy to destructive effect.

    The blue plaque, erected by the Institute of Physics on the wall of Evan James Williams birthplace at Brynawel, is the only one in Wales thus far.  This book explains why it is so deserving, a testament to how the power of thought and thoughts catapulted a crwt [Welsh for 'lad'] from south Ceredigion into the top echelons of academia, also into the heart of the war effort and through brief decades of sophisticated thinking about the basic matter of the universe in a life then cut most cruelly short.

  10. Review of the Welsh Edition by: Glyn O Phillips.

    A warm and readable portrait of Wales's greatest atomic scientist - the volume captures the excitement of the creative partnership between Williams and the pioneering scientists of the time, such as Bragg, Bohr, Blackett and others. A pearl of a book.

  11. Review of the Welsh Edition by: John Meurig Thomas.

    Among the scientific giants responsible for the massive revolution that took place in the 1930s, there was a remarkably capable Welsh speaker - E J Williams from Cwmsychbant, Cardiganshire. After a short and spectacular career in Swansea, Manchester, Cambridge, Copenhagen, Liverpool, and as a Physics Professor at Aberystwyth, he died at the age of 45. He has been admired by individuals such as Heisenberg, Bohr, Dirac, Peierls and Landau, and is one of Wales' brightest scientists of all time. This magnificent book does justice to his career, and the whole thing is wonderfully composed. The layman can understand exactly the romance of science and enjoy the fascinating stories described here by the author, Rowaland Wynne.

  12. Review of the Welsh Edition by: Gwyn Griffiths.

    As Welsh people we have been guilty of neglecting our scientists. Excellent, therefore, was the discovery of Dr Rowland Wynne's volume, Evan James Williams: Atom Physicist. E J Williams was considered by one scientist friend to be the brightest scientist in Welsh history. Sir John Meurig Thomas refers to him on the back of the volume a little more carefully, referring to him as "one of the most brilliant scientists our nation has produced."

    Who knows what E J Williams, born at Cwmsychbant, near Llandysul, in 1903, would have achieved had it not been for his untimely death. He died in 1945 when, after the war years, he was about to resume his position as Professor of Physics at University College, Aberystwyth.

    E J Williams' life is an exciting story that begins in a culturally Welsh, Welsh home. From there to Llandysul Grammar School, University College, Swansea, Manchester, Copenhagen, visits to Russia and California and back to Ceredigion. The number of his publications is in itself a testament to his brilliance. At just 21 he had twice published in the Philosophical Magazine.

    From Swansea he went in October 1924 to the Physics Department of the University of Manchester where he studied X-ray scattering, focusing on the electrons that appeared due to collisions of the X-rays with atoms in different gases.

    In October 1927 he entered the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, and before the end of 1929 he was awarded a Cambridge doctorate and the following year a University of Wales D.Sc. on the basis of his publications - a total of 24, some in journals of the status of the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The work he did as a research student is remarkable - work that took place in the context of the revolution in the world of quantum physics in the first quarter of the 20th century.

    In 1933, between lectureships at the universities of Manchester and Liverpool, he had the opportunity to spend a year at the Universitets Institut for Teoretisk Fysik in Copenhagen, the world's leading centre of theoretical physics in the 1920s and 1930s. There he worked with Niels Bohr, one of the principal leaders of the quantum world, and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1922.

    Reading the list of scientists that E J Williams has been in contact with, or collaborated with, is like reading the 'Who's Who' of the scientific world - Robert Oppenheimer, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born ... , as since so many of these scientists are Germans there is valuable coverage of the politics of the time, the rise of Nazism and, eventually, the race to create the atomic bomb.

    Among the many interesting stories contained in the volume are an argument between E J Williams and Oppenheimer in the Physical Review, with Oppenheimer finally admitting that he regrets arguing with the Welshman. "I wish that I had left the subject entirely in your competent hands," he said - much to the credit of the foremost among US scientific theorists.

    During the war E J Williams's acumen and intelligence were instrumental in the fight against the U-boats, when he worked for the Royal Aircraft Institute at Farnborough and subsequently at the Admiralty.

    Little is known about the author of the volume, so here's a little extra. Rowland Wynne is a native of Llanelli and after attending the College in Aberystwyth he was a lecturer in the Physics Department of Reading University before returning to Wales where he later became the OU deputy director.

    He had a masterful, exciting and entertaining approach to E J Williams, the joyful, mischievous man, and his science, in excellent, agile Welsh. It is noted that the volume is part of the University of Wales Press's Scientists of Wales series. This is, in fact, the first in the series, although two previous volumes have been published in English. It contains references to a number of other distinguished scientists from Wales, some of whom are contemporary of E J Williams - men such as Edwin Augustine Owen of Blaenau Ffestiniog who was a good friend of Niels Bohr, Evan Jenkin Evans, David Rees and Llewelyn Hilleth Thomas.

    Outside the scientific world these names are not well known. Thanks to Rowland Wynne for his solid start to the series.

Last Updated July 2022