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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index T > Sir J.J. Thomson Quotes

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Sir J.J. Thomson
(18 Dec 1856 - 30 Aug 1940)

English physicist who investigated what were known as cathode rays, and discovered the electron (1897) and received the 1906 Nobel Prize for Physics.

Science Quotes by Sir J.J. Thomson (15 quotes)

An unelectrified atom is so elusive that unless more than a million million are present we have no means sufficiently sensitive to detect them, or, to put it another way, unless we had a better test for a man than for an unelectrified molecule, we should be unable to find out that the earth was inhabited. … A billion unelectrified atoms may escape our observation, whereas a dozen or so electrified ones are detected without difficulty.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
From the Romanes Lecture (10 Jun 1914) delivered in the Sheldonian Theatre, published as The Atomic Theory (1914), 9.
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As we conquer peak after peak we see in front of us regions full of interest and beauty, but we do not see our goal, wo do not see the horizon; in the distance tower still higher peaks, which will yield to those who ascend them still wider prospects, and deepen the feeling, the truth of which is emphasised by every advance in science, that “Great are the Works of the Lord.”
— Sir J.J. Thomson
In Presidential Address to the British Association, as quoted in Arthur L. Foley, 'Recent Developments in Physical Science, The Popular Science Monthly (1910), 456.
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Atoms are not indivisible, for negatively electrified particles can be torn from them by the action of electrical forces.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
In Recollections and Reflections (1936), 338.
Science quotes on:  |  Action (185)  |  Atom (280)  |  Charge (35)  |  Electrical (13)  |  Force (249)  |  Negative (34)  |  Particle (99)

By research in pure science I mean research made without any idea of application to industrial matters but solely with the view of extending our knowledge of the Laws of Nature. I will give just one example of the ‘utility’ of this kind of research, one that has been brought into great prominence by the War—I mean the use of X-rays in surgery. Now, not to speak of what is beyond money value, the saving of pain, or, it may be, the life of the wounded, and of bitter grief to those who loved them, the benefit which the state has derived from the restoration of so many to life and limb, able to render services which would otherwise have been lost, is almost incalculable. Now, how was this method discovered? It was not the result of a research in applied science starting to find an improved method of locating bullet wounds. This might have led to improved probes, but we cannot imagine it leading to the discovery of X-rays. No, this method is due to an investigation in pure science, made with the object of discovering what is the nature of Electricity. The experiments which led to this discovery seemed to be as remote from ‘humanistic interest’ —to use a much misappropriated word—as anything that could well be imagined. The apparatus consisted of glass vessels from which the last drops of air had been sucked, and which emitted a weird greenish light when stimulated by formidable looking instruments called induction coils. Near by, perhaps, were great coils of wire and iron built up into electro-magnets. I know well the impression it made on the average spectator, for I have been occupied in experiments of this kind nearly all my life, notwithstanding the advice, given in perfect good faith, by non-scientific visitors to the laboratory, to put that aside and spend my time on something useful.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
In Speech made on behalf of a delegation from the Conjoint Board of Scientific Studies in 1916 to Lord Crewe, then Lord President of the Council. In George Paget Thomson, J. J. Thomson and the Cavendish Laboratory in His Day (1965), 167-8.

From the point of view of the physicist, a theory of matter is a policy rather than a creed; its object is to connect or co-ordinate apparently diverse phenomena, and above all to suggest, stimulate and direct experiment. It ought to furnish a compass which, if followed, will lead the observer further and further into previously unexplored regions.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
The Corpuscular Theory of Matter (1907), 1.

His work was so great that it cannot be compassed in a few words. His death is one of the greatest losses ever to occur to British science.
Describing Ernest Rutherford upon his death at age 66. Thomson, then 80 years old, was once his teacher.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
Quoted in Time Magazine (1 Nov 1937).
Science quotes on:  |  Sir Ernest Rutherford (53)

I have paid special attention to those Properties of the Positive Rays which seem to throw light on the problems of the structure of molecules and atoms and the question of chemical combination … I am convinced that as yet we are only at the beginning of the harvest of results which will elucidate the process of chemical combination, and thus bridge over the most serious gap which now exists between Physics and Chemistry.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
Rays of Positive Electricity and their Application to Chemical Analyses (1921), v.

If a mixture of different kinds of electrified atoms is moving along in one stream, then when electric and magnetic forces are applied to the stream simultaneously, the different kinds of atoms are sorted out, and the original stream is divided up into a number of smaller streams separated from each other. The particles in any one of the smaller streams are all of the same kind.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
From the Romanes Lecture (10 Jun 1914) delivered in the Sheldonian Theatre, published as The Atomic Theory (1914), 9.
Science quotes on:  |  Apply (77)  |  Atom (280)  |  Different (186)  |  Electric (15)  |  Electrified (2)  |  Force (249)  |  Ion (8)  |  Kind (140)  |  Magnetic (11)  |  Mass Spectrometer (2)  |  Mixture (26)  |  Move (94)  |  Simultaneous (18)  |  Sort (49)  |  Stream (40)

If the modern conception of the atom is correct the barrier which separated physics from chemistry has been removed.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
The Electron in Chemistry (1923), Preface.

In the distance tower still higher peaks which will yield to those who ascend them still wider prospects, and deepen the feeling whose truth is emphasized by every advance in science: that “Great are the Works of the Lord.”
— Sir J.J. Thomson
From Inaugural Address to the Annual Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Winnipeg. Collected in 'The British Association at Winnipeg',Nature (26 Aug 1909), 81. No. 2078, 257.
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The contest [between the wave and particle theories of light] is something like one between a shark and a tiger, each is supreme in its own element but helpless in that of the other.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
In Fison Memorial Lecture (7 May 1925) at Guy’s Hospital Medical School, London, published as The Structure of Light: The Fison Memorial Lecture 1925 (1925), 15.
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The ether is not a fantastic creation of the speculative philosopher; it is as essential to us as the air we breathe.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
In 'Address of the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science', Science (27 Aug 1909), 30, 267.

The study of … simple cases would, I think, often be of advantage even to students whose mathematical attainments are sufficient to enable them to follow the solution of the more general cases. For in these simple cases the absence of analytical difficulties allows attention to be more easily concentrated on the physical aspects of the question, and thus gives the student a more vivid idea and a more manageable grasp of the subject than he would be likely to attain if he merely regarded electrical phenomena through a cloud of analytical symbols.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
Elements of the Mathematical Theory of Electricity and Magnetism (189S), v-vi.

This example illustrates the differences in the effects which may be produced by research in pure or applied science. A research on the lines of applied science would doubtless have led to improvement and development of the older methods—the research in pure science has given us an entirely new and much more powerful method. In fact, research in applied science leads to reforms, research in pure science leads to revolutions, and revolutions, whether political or industrial, are exceedingly profitable things if you are on the winning side.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
In Lord Rayleigh, The Life of Sir J. J. Thomson (1943), 199
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With the discovery and study of Cathode rays, Röntgen rays and Radioactivity a new era has begun in Physics.
— Sir J.J. Thomson
In Conduction of Electricity through Gases (1903), vi.

Quotes by others about Sir J.J. Thomson (3)

Ohm found that the results could be summed up in such a simple law that he who runs may read it, and a schoolboy now can predict what a Faraday then could only guess at roughly. By Ohm's discovery a large part of the domain of electricity became annexed by Coulomb's discovery of the law of inverse squares, and completely annexed by Green's investigations. Poisson attacked the difficult problem of induced magnetisation, and his results, though differently expressed, are still the theory, as a most important first approximation. Ampere brought a multitude of phenomena into theory by his investigations of the mechanical forces between conductors supporting currents and magnets. Then there were the remarkable researches of Faraday, the prince of experimentalists, on electrostatics and electrodynamics and the induction of currents. These were rather long in being brought from the crude experimental state to a compact system, expressing the real essence. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Faraday was not a mathematician. It can scarely be doubted that had he been one, he would have anticipated much later work. He would, for instance, knowing Ampere's theory, by his own results have readily been led to Neumann’s theory, and the connected work of Helmholtz and Thomson. But it is perhaps too much to expect a man to be both the prince of experimentalists and a competent mathematician.
From article 'Electro-magnetic Theory II', in The Electrician (16 Jan 1891), 26, No. 661, 331.
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I am now convinced that we have recently become possessed of experimental evidence of the discrete or grained nature of matter, which the atomic hypothesis sought in vain for hundreds and thousands of years. The isolation and counting of gaseous ions, on the one hand, which have crowned with success the long and brilliant researches of J.J. Thomson, and, on the other, agreement of the Brownian movement with the requirements of the kinetic hypothesis, established by many investigators and most conclusively by J. Perrin, justify the most cautious scientist in now speaking of the experimental proof of the atomic nature of matter, The atomic hypothesis is thus raised to the position of a scientifically well-founded theory, and can claim a place in a text-book intended for use as an introduction to the present state of our knowledge of General Chemistry.
In Grundriss der allgemeinen Chemie (4th ed., 1909), Preface, as cited by Erwin N. Hiebert and Hans-Gunther Korber in article on Ostwald in Charles Coulston Gillespie (ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography Supplement 1, Vol 15-16, 464.
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I venture to assert that the feelings one has when the beautiful symbolism of the infinitesimal calculus first gets a meaning, or when the delicate analysis of Fourier has been mastered, or while one follows Clerk Maxwell or Thomson into the strange world of electricity, now growing so rapidly in form and being, or can almost feel with Stokes the pulsations of light that gives nature to our eyes, or track with Clausius the courses of molecules we can measure, even if we know with certainty that we can never see them I venture to assert that these feelings are altogether comparable to those aroused in us by an exquisite poem or a lofty thought.
In paper (May 1891) read before Bath Branch of the Teachers’ Guild, published in The Practical Teacher (July 1891), reprinted as 'Geometry', in Frederic Spencer, Chapters on the Aims and Practice of Teaching (1897), 194.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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