Patrick Blackett

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Patrick Blackett

Cosmic rays are handy things for scientists. They tell us about some of the most powerful and dramatic events in the universe. They reveal details about the structure of matter. And for British scientist Patrick Blackett, they led to the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Blackett was born 125 years ago today. He enrolled in a naval academy at age 13. He served in the Royal Navy during World War I and saw combat in a couple of campaigns. After the war, he decided to study physics. In particular, he studied the newly discovered particles known as cosmic rays.

Today, we know they come from exploding stars and other powerful events far outside our galaxy. At the time, however, they were a complete mystery. Blackett and his colleagues examined the nature of the high-energy particles and how they react with other matter. That provided details on how atoms and their particles are put together. It also led to experiments in which he transformed oxygen atoms to nitrogen — the first successful “transmutation” in history.

During World War II, Blackett worked on defenses against German U-boats and on better anti-aircraft systems. After that, he developed a new scientific interest: the magnetic fields of Earth and the Sun. His work helped confirm that Earth’s continents move around.

Blackett died in 1974 — a man who helped us learn about our planet, our universe, and the tiniest particles of matter.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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