When Nobel Prize winning physicist was wrong about atoms

Dec 13, 2020 0 comments
jj thomson plum pudding model electron atom

Sometimes, even the most brilliant people can make awfully wrong predictions despite having pioneered the concerned field. Sir J.J. Thomson is one such example. He is widely recognized as the discoverer of electron (1897). This was the most unanticipated discovery of the time as it managed to change the very dynamics of physics.


What followed next was the plum pudding model of atom, as it is famously called today. It tried to explain the internal structure of atom in a rudimentary way. The problem, however, was that the model was proposed in hurry as hardly anything "solid" was known about the positive charge then.

At the time there was only one certainty: That the atom must also have a source of positive charge to balance out the negative electrons. Thus, there were three possible solutions in front of Thomson:

  1. Each electron paired with a positively charged particle that followed it everywhere within the atom,
  2. Electrons orbited a central region of positive charge having the same magnitude as the total charge of all the electrons, or
  3. Electrons occupied a region of space that was uniformly positively charged (often considered as a kind of "cloud" of positive charge).

Thomson picked the third possibility. Had he known that the proton was stuffed in a miniscule space at the centre of atom, as it was discovered by Geiger and Marsden (1909), he would definitely have proposed the Solar System model of atom, as it was done so by Ernest Rutherford in 1911.

The point is: We may sometimes not analyze a situation correctly and fail as a result. But, in the end, it does not matter because everyone makes mistakes. One must, though, always remember to learn from one's mistakes. That will do one good in the long run, surely.

J.J. Thomson was an iconic figure in the field of science. His contributions remain no less than those of Planck or Einstein. More than that, throughout his life, he was always aware of the importance of intangible things: family love, friendships, kindness, etc. This awareness, that shone through all he did, made him memorable not only as as a man but also as a physicist.

Furthermore, did you know that he was also a great teacher (just as Sommerfeld)? In fact, eight of Thomson's students went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics. He himself won the most coveted prize in 1906 for his work on the conduction of electricity in gases. Hence, one mistake does not mean the end of the world after all!

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