Famous for smashing atoms

6 October 2014

Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton was an Irish physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Born on 6 October 1903, he worked with John Cockcroft at Cambridge University in the early 1930s, developing an atom-smashing generator known as the Cockcroft-Walton generator. They were the first scientists in history to artificially split the atom and were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1951.

Ernest was born of Reverend John Walton, a Methodist minister, and Anna Sinton. His mother died in 1906 in Rathkeale in County Limerick, although Ernest was born in Dungarvan, County Waterford. This change in location was probably due to the practice of moving clergyman every three years. Ernest attended day schools in various counties before boarding at Methodist College Belfast in 1915 where he reportedly excelled in science and mathematics.

Winning scholarships to Trinity College, Dublin, Walton studied mathematics and science, being awarded a bachelor’s degree in 1926 and a master’s degree in 1927. After graduating, he was accepted as a research student at Trinity College, Cambridge, under the supervision of Sir Ernest Rutherford.

Marrying Freda Wilson in 1934, the daughter of an Irish Methodist Minister, Ernest had five children: Alan, Marian, Philip, Jean and Winifred. Alan and Philip followed in their father’s footsteps in the field of physics.

Ernest was a longstanding member of the Methodist church and, following the award of the Nobel Prize, he spoke on science and religion to audiences in Ireland, the United States and Sweden. On the relationship between science and religion, he stated:

“One way to learn the mind of the Creator is to study His creation. We must pay God the compliment of studying His work of art and this should apply to all realms of human thought. A refusal to use our intelligence honestly is an act of contempt for Him who gave us that intelligence …”

[Quote from p.58 of V. J. McBrierty: Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, The Irish Scientist, 1903-1995].

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