Publisher Information: 1971.
Bragg, William Lawrence (1890-1971). Typed letter signed to Dr. R. M. Ancell, Jr. London, January 7, 1971. 1-1/4pp., on single sheet (air letter). 238 x 196 mm. Creased where originally folded, traces of mounting tape, otherwise fine.
Bragg founded the science of x-ray crystallography, and played a fundamental role in its development into one of the essential analytic tools of physics, chemistry and molecular biology. Prior to 1912, scientists had very little knowledge about the solid state of matter, but in 1912 came the Friedrich-Knipping-Laue paper showing that x-rays can be diffracted by crystals. Drawing on this discovery and on the work of others in the field, Lawrence Bragg was able to determine the theoretical basis for crystal structure analysis, which he was able to demonstrate experimentally using the x-ray spectrometer invented by his father, William Henry Bragg.
In 1915, at the age of 25 Bragg became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Prize, an honor he shared with his father. Bragg began his academic career at Trinity College, Cambridge, then moved to Manchester University where he remained until 1937. After a year at the National Physical Laboratory, Bragg was named Cavendish Professor of experimental physics at Cambridge, a post he held until 1953.
Shortly after his return to Cambridge, Bragg met Max Perutz, who had been working at the Cavendish Laboratory on the structure of hemoglobin; Bragg immediately became deeply interested in applying x-ray crystallography to the study of the huge and complex protein molecules of the living cell. He devoted the rest of his scientific career to this field and supervised the work of others, including Perutz and John Kendrew, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their studies of the structures of globular proteins. Another Cavendish triumph during Bragg's tenure there was Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA; Bragg did not play a direct role in this work, but encouraged it and was quick to understand the importance of the results. After Bragg's retirement from Cambridge he was appointed professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, where he continued his scientific researches, made important organizational and administrative changes, and instituted an enormously popular series of scientific lectures for schoolchildren, many of which he gave himself. These lectures inspired a television series, and made Bragg an admired and recognized public figure. He retired from the R. I. in 1966, and died in July 1971.
The letter we are offering here, written six months before Bragg's death, is a response to a query by a member of the television news staff at KOB Radio & Television in Albuquerque, N.M. It contains some profound and thought-provoking statements on the nature and progress of scientific research, and even for the collecting of major science classics:"Fundamental Research: I take it fundamental research means research at the state where it is impossible to think what use it might be. I read an interesting article recently by one of your compatriots in which he traced back the origin of developments which had been of extreme importance in industry. In not a single case could he find that there could have been any idea of their use when it was made. . . . One has to accept the fact, however, that a healthy state of affairs implies research going on just to find out more about nature, without any thought of use. . . . Here I would stress as of primary importance the allocation of the money for research by a wise and competent body able to recognize genius.
" Fundamental research has a peculiar quality. One does not get so much research for so much money. If one considers all the papers published by the innumerable journals, they always remind me of millions of seeds produced by the elm tree each year, where there is a small chance that any one of them will grow into another elm tree.
" Some papers are vital and alter the whole course of science, such as Volta's paper on the pile, Rontgen's announcement of his discovery of x-rays, Bohr's paper on the hydrogen spectrum, and coming to recent times the paper by Watson and Crick on DNA. Curiously enough these papers are generally only a few pages long. But, unless a paper has an almost immediate impact in making people think and work in a different way, it is left behind by the march of science and might just as well never have been written. It is too much bother to read it although the work may be quite honest and good.
Papers more than 10 years old are only of interest to the historian of science because science grows on the surface like a coral reef. I estimate that only one in 100 of published papers are viable in the sense that they influence science and I think this is probably on optimistic estimate because one in 1000 is more realistic. The furtherance of science therefore demands that the money shall go to producing viable papers; the efficiency with which it is spent depends far more on this than on anything else, so I think the way that the money is allocated therefore far outweighs in importance any other consideration. . . ."
Phillips, "William Lawrence Bragg," in Thomas & Phillips, eds., Selections and Reflections: The Legacy of Sir Lawrence Bragg, pp. 1-69.Book Id: 38490