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Baron Rayleigh

winner of the 1904 Nobel Prize for Physics

Baron Rayleigh

John William Strutt was born at Langford Grove, Maldon, Essex, England, on November 12, 1842, the eldest son of John James Strutt, second Baron, and his wife Clara Elizabeth La Touche. He entered Eton at the age of 10, but his studies were soon interrupted by poor health. After three years in a private school at Wimbledon and a health-shortened stay at Harrow, he spent four years with the Rev. George Townsend Warner, who took pupils at Torquay. Despite the frequent interruptions of his early education, he was able to enter Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1861, and to graduate in the Mathematical Tripos as Senior Wrangler and Smith's Prizeman from that institution in 1865. In 1866 he obtained a fellowship at Trinity which he held until 1871, the year of his marriage.

After a post-graduation trip to the United States, Strutt purchased an outfit of scientific apparatus and established a laboratory on his family's estate. In his first paper, published in 1869, he explained the electromagnetic theory of James Clerk Maxwell in terms of analogies that the average person could understand. Other early papers dealt with such subjects as electromagnetism, color, acoustics, and diffraction gratings. One of his most significant works was his theory explaining the blue color of the sky as the result of scattering of sunlight by small particles in the atmosphere (published in 1871).

In 1871, Strutt married Evelyn Balfour, the sister of future Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour. The couple eventually had three sons, the eldest of whom was to become Professor of Physics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London.

Struck by a severe attack of rheumatic fever shortly after his marriage, Strutt and his new bride embarked on a trip to Egypt. That allowed Strutt to regain his health, and also gave him time to begin work on The Theory of Sound. The first volume of that work, in which he examined questions of resonance and the resonance of elastic solids and gases, was published in 1877. The second volume, on acoustic wave propagation, was published in 1878. From 1871 to 1879 he worked on the diffraction of light and the theory of the resolving power of lenses and diffraction gratings.

Strutt succeded to the title of 3rd Baron Rayleigh of Terling Place upon the death of father in 1873.

In 1879, Rayleigh succeeded James Clerk Maxwell as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge, in which capacity he served until 1884. Much of his laboratory work during this period focused on the precision determination of electrical standards. A few months after resigning from Cambridge, Rayleigh became secretary of the Royal Society, in which capacity he served until 1895. From 1887 to 1905 he also served as Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Rayleigh's research at Cambridge led to his discovery that the density of nitrogen obtained from the atmosphere is greater by a small though definite amount than is the density of nitrogen obtained from one of its chemical compounds. Rayleigh decided to explore the possibility that the discrepancy he had discovered resulted from the presence in the atmosphere of an unknown gas. That work culminated in the isolation of argon in 1895. Rayleigh shared the discovery with William Ramsay, who began his "search" after Rayleigh’s publication of the original density discrepancy. Rayleigh was awarded the 1904 Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery, while Ramsay received the Prize for Chemistry

Rayleigh subsequently served for six years as President of a Government Committee on Explosives, and from 1896 to 1919 was Scientific Advisor to Trinity House. He was Lord Lieutenant of Essex from 1892 to 1901, served as president of the Royal Society from 1905 to 1908, and served as chancellor of the University of Cambridge from 1908 to his death. Despite his early frequent bouts of ill health, Rayleigh's mental faculties remained fully intact and he continued his research work until days before his death, which came at Terling Place on June 30, 1919.

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This page was last updated on 05/10/2017.