The Physical World

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Theme Conveners: Arthur Garratt and Jan Read ◦ Display Designers: Ronald Ingles and Clifford Hatts

In this section is the story of those who have explored inside nature to discover how matter – the substance of all things – is made, and what natural laws govern its behaviour. The desire to know these things has long burned in this country and in pursuing it we have done much to found and develop the sciences of chemistry and physics – the names by which we call these provinces of enquiry.

Pure science – discovery for its own sake – has huge rewards to offer the human mind: whole new territories of beauty and order, fantastic in their intricacy. This you can see in the Exhibition of Science in South Kensington. But these explorations have produced something else of vast importance – the basis for most, if not all, of the great material achievements of the modern world. It is these discoveries that form most of the displays in the Physical World.

As you come into the section, you can make the same choice as the earlier scientists did – whether to find out first how matter is built up (chemistry) or why it behaves as it does (physics). Whichever of these sequences you take first you can follow out the second later; both, however, come together again (as the sciences do) in the subject of the atom and its nucleus which is displayed on the upper gallery.

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Chemical discovery

The chemical sequence shows how much men like Boyle, Black, Cavendish, Priestley and Dalton added to our knowledge of the structure of matter and how the conception of atoms, molecules and elements arose. The story then passes on to the ways in which various substances can combine together to produce materials quite unlike any of their constituents. Such knowledge enables chemists not only to produce such combinations at will, but nowadays to make substances that do not occur in nature. This synthesis, as it is called, is the highlight of modem chemistry. Already it has produced sulpha drugs, paludrine and vitamins for preserving the health of mankind, rayon, nylon and terylene for clothing and plastics for all manner of purposes.

Physical discovery

The fundamental discoveries of British physicists have had very many applications. One example of Boyle’s law, for instance, is the modern mechanism for closing the doors of underground trains; one of the outcomes of Newton’s genius has ultimately been the jet engine; Faraday’s classical experiments with a magnet and some coils of wire made electric power possible. Kelvin’s mathematical insight helped to create refrigerators; Maxwell laid the foundations of radio before a message had ever been transmitted; J. J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron resulted, among many other things, in the cathode ray tube of a television set. It was Rutherford who provided the means for releasing nuclear energy.

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The results of the physicists and chemists have led also to many technical advances in other subjects. Motor cars, for example, are more efficient as a result of the instruments physicists have evolved for testing every new design. Medicine, biology, metallurgy owe them a great debt for the provision of research tools. It was mathematics that offered the principal tool to physicists; now physicists have provided calculating machines which take minutes to solve problems that would take mathematicians many months.

Nuclear research

The pioneer work in nuclear physics was done in Britain, though the development of the atomic pile, as such, was largely an international achievement. The displays of this subject, which form the conclusion of the Physical World section, do not embark on speculation about future marvels; they do show, however, some of the applications that are being developed at the present time. Important among them are the by-products of research which have given medicine the very important new technique of radioactive tracers. With these an atom can, as it were, be labelled and observed in its movements through the human body.

This great field of exploration, then, has affected the lives of all of us. It has given us machines that lighten our labours, drugs that have altered the relationship between man and disease and altogether new means of communication. More than this, it continues to provide new tools and devices by which exploration in all other fields can be intensified, so that the horizons for human endeavour will continue to expand.