[Date Prev][Date Next]
[cdn-nucl-l] Bertram Neville Brockhouse, Physics Today, Feb 2004
I thought you might be interested in this obituary. It appeared in Physics
Today, Feb 2004
Bertram Neville Brockhouse
Bertram Neville Brockhouse
Bertram Neville Brockhouse, professor emeritus at McMaster University, who
shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physics with Clifford Shull, died on 13
October 2003 in Hamilton, Canada.
Bert was born in Lethbridge, Canada, on 15 July 1918 and grew up in
Vancouver. He began his elementary school education in a one-room
schoolhouse a few miles from the family farm. Completing high school at the
height of the Depression, and with limited employment prospects, he moved
with his family to Chicago in 1935. There, he took evening courses in radio
repair and design that earned him a position as a laboratory assistant in an
electrical firm and allowed him to repair radios on his own time. After
three years in Chicago, the family returned to Vancouver.
In 1939, soon after Canada was at war with the Axis powers, Bert enlisted in
the Royal Canadian Navy and went to sea as a sonar operator before
eventually rising to the position of electrical sub-lieutenant. After his
discharge from the navy in 1945, he took advantage of a veterans' program to
begin studies at the University of British Columbia, where he majored in
physics and mathematics.
On completion of his bachelor's degree in 1946, he obtained summer work in
the electrical standards section of the National Research Council in Ottawa.
During that summer, Bert, a motorcycle enthusiast in his youth, rode his
motorcycle three-quarters of the way across North America, from Vancouver to
Ottawa, via Chicago--no mean feat. He subsequently completed a master's
degree in physics at the University of Toronto. His doctoral studies there,
initially supervised by Edward Bullard, earned him his PhD in 1950 with a
thesis on the effects of stress and temperature on the magnetic properties
of ferromagnetic materials.
That same year, Bert began work at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories of the
National Research Council of Canada's Atomic Energy Project near Ottawa.
There, he would do the work that won him the Nobel Prize. He collaborated
with Donald Hurst, Myer Bloom, G. Goldschmidt, and N. Page in studying the
resonant scattering of slow neutrons by strong absorbers. Ultimately,
members of the group proposed the idea of studying the inelastic scattering
of slow neutrons, an effort deemed feasible because Chalk River's National
Research Experimental (NRX) reactor was then the world's highest flux beam
By 1952, Bert had designed and built a triple-axis machine to measure the
frequency distribution of phonon excitations in crystals. After much
experimentation with a variety of techniques both at Chalk River and at
Brookhaven National Laboratory over the next few years, Bert and his
collaborators ultimately developed the famed triple-axis spectrometer with
all angles adjustable so that it was possible to carry out scans as a
function of energy at fixed momentum transfer--the so-called constant-Q
technique. By 1958, a triple-axis spectrometer was operating at Chalk
River's new National Research Universal reactor, with much enhanced neutron
flux as compared with NRX, and the stage was set for great progress.
Triple-axis spectrometers adorn high-flux beam reactors around the world to
this day, and the constant-Q technique is in frequent current use.
Using the constant-Q triple axis and other inelastic neutron scattering
techniques, Bert and his collaborators were very quickly able to carry out a
remarkable series of seminal measurements. Those included measurements of
the phonon dispersion curves in metals such as aluminum and lead,
semiconductors such as silicon and germanium, and insulators such as the
alkali halides. Bert's work measuring insulators, done in collaboration with
David Woods and William Cochran, led to the development of the famed shell
In addition to the seminal work on phonon dispersion curves, Bert pioneered
studies of other elementary excitations in solids including spin-wave
excitations (magnons) and crystal-field excitons. Key members of the Chalk
River group at that time, in addition to those previously named, included
Alec Stewart, Roger A. Cowley, and Gerald Dolling. Of course, the facilities
at Chalk River and Bert's own successful experimentation drew many great
visiting scientists from around the world including P. Iyengar, M. Sakamoto,
K. Rao, L. Becka, H. Watanabe, B. Dasannacharya, and J. Bergsma. Even after
Bert moved to McMaster, the group that he established at Chalk River
continued to flourish, and many scientists, including ourselves, received
their first training in neutron scattering there.
From 1962 until he retired in 1984, Bert was a professor of physics at
McMaster. His presence was instrumental in building up a research- intensive
department through the 1960s, and he served as chairman of the physics
department at McMaster from 1967 to 1970. An interdisciplinary materials
research institute at McMaster, founded by Howard Petch and James Morrison
in 1969, was renamed the Brockhouse Institute for Materials Research in
1995. There, as at Chalk River, Bert mentored many students who have gone on
to have significant careers in physics.
Although greatly admired for his intellect and novel ways of approaching
problems, Bert is remembered for his affection and his humble, gracious
manner. Shortly after the announcement that he was a winner of the Nobel
Prize, for example, Bert told a gathering of Canadian undergraduate physics
students at McMaster that he used to think that his work was not so
important, but recent events had forced him to reconsider. He is also
remembered for his love of the arts: He often sang opera at work and he
appeared in a number of amateur theater productions including a George
Bernard Shaw play and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Even during the most
hectic and productive time in his career, Bert found time to be a devoted
family man with six children and, ultimately, 10 grandchildren.
Although Bert's passing is mourned by his many friends and colleagues, we
have been inspired by a life of great accomplishment.
Robert J. Birgeneau
University of Toronto
Bruce D. Gaulin
2004 American Institute of Physics