The Ben Nevis Cloud Chamber.

16th December 2023

Cloudy on Aonach Mor this morning. 

Another cloudy and damp day on Ben Nevis today. The freezing level was well above the summits, and it rained for much of the day. There is very little snow left here on the Lochaber hills now.

As there very little snow, but plenty of cloud about today, I thought it might be a good opportunity to mention the contribution a cloudy Ben Nevis made (indirectly) to particle physics.  Let me explain. Back in 1894  a recently graduated physicist/meteorologist called Charles Wilson got some work in the observatory on the summit of Ben  Nevis.  Like today back in 1894 the summit of Ben Nevis was a pretty cloudy place. Wilson was interested in clouds, and in particular some of the optical phenomenon associated with them.

The view up to Carn Dearg Buttress, also cloudy on Ben Nevis! I wonder what would happen if you trapped that cloud in a chamber and had ionizing radiation pass through it…?  

Later on when working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, he tried to reproduce some of these effects on a smaller scale by expanding humid air within a sealed container. Through this he invented a device (called the Wilson Cloud Chamber) which showed the track of the subatomic particles. This allowed the physicists of the day a huge experimental leap forward in their ability to study of subatomic particles.  The discoveries of the positron in 1932 and the muon in 1936 used cloud chambers. It was certainly Wilson’s signature accomplishment, earning him(shared with Arthur Compton) the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1927. The cloud formations that occur after large explosions, such as nuclear detonations, are called Wilson Condensation Clouds after him.

Tomorrow looks like being a mild and very wet day (will try to keep the blog interesting when there is no snow to talk about). Fortunately it looks like getting a bit colder with some snow next week, we will start writing avalanche hazard forecasts as soon as there is enough snow to justify it.



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