BRAGG, WILLIAM LAWRENCE. 1890-1971.
Typed Letter Signed ("W.L. Bragg"), 2 pp recto and verso, 4to, London, 7th January, 1971, to Dr. R.M. Ancell Jr of KOB Radio & Television News, on blue stationery, about fundamental research, funding, and the how to get young people interested in science.
Provenance: Jeremy Norman.
FROM THE YOUNGEST PERSON TO EVER WIN A NOBEL PRIZE. Written six months before Bragg's death and in response to a query by a member of the television news staff at KOB Radio & Television in Albuquerque, N.M, this letter contains some profound and thought-provoking statements on the nature and progress of scientific research. In part: "I take it fundamental research means research at the state where it is impossible to think what use it might be ... 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, Röntgen'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 ... 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...."
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 he became the youngest person (at the time of this writing) to receive the Nobel Prize, an honor he shared with his father. See Phillips' "William Lawrence Bragg" in Thomas & Phillips, eds., Selections and Reflections: The Legacy of Sir Lawrence Bragg, pp 1-69.