There can’t be many people who win a Nobel Prize for something they discover as a 22-year old student. Brian Josephson from Pen-y-lan is the only Welshman so far to have won a Nobel Prize in Physics.
Brian David Josephson was born on 4 Jan 1940 in Cardiff. He grew up in 26 Earl’s Court Road, Pen-y-lan, an only-child of Jewish parents. His father, Abraham Josephson, was a teacher at nearby Howardian High School. Abraham Josephson had been born in Salford to David and Betsy Josephson who had immigrated from Russia. Brian’s mother was Minnie ‘Mimi’ Josephson née Weisbard who was born in Swansea, to parents who had immigrated from Russia. Mimi had various jobs including teaching gifted children and as a reporter. She once interviewed Dylan Thomas. Brian has published a number of her poems.
Brian attended Marlborough Road Junior School before moving onto Cardiff High School. He credits Emrys Jones, his physics teacher at Cardiff High, with introducing him to the subject of theoretical physics. In the evenings he sometimes attended Pen-y-lan observatory that was on Cyncoed Road in what is now Cyncoed Gardens. In 1955, aged just 15 he was awarded a mathematics scholarship for Trinity College, Cambridge, having already obtained distinctions in pure and applied maths A-level. Despite being awarded the scholarship he decided not to go to Cambridge until 1957.
He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1957 and received his BA in physics in 1960. He initially read maths at Cambridge but later switched to read physics. This was in the days when computers were the size of a whole room and built using valves. He published his first paper, dealing with aspects of the special theory of relativity and the Mössbauer effect, while still an undergraduate. All I can tell you about the Mössbauer effect is that it is to do with certain atomic nuclei bound in a crystal that emit gamma rays The story goes that Brian attended a lecture on the recently discovered Mössbauer effect and went away and did some calculations. He sent them to the Government’s Harwell Laboratory and so impressed were they that they sent a car with a uniformed chauffeur to pick him up at his Cambridge college and take him to Harwell to discuss the calculations further.
He chose to do a PhD at Cambridge in the Cavendish laboratory under Prof Brian Pippard. It was whilst studying for this PhD that he developed a theory that became known as the Josephson Effect. It is associated with superconductivity and his work came shortly after the phenomena had been explained.
So what is superconductivity? When electricity travels from the power station to your house quite a lot is ‘lost’ along the way. Think of it as a leaking hosepipe. With superconductivity none is lost along the way meaning there would be fewer power stations needed. Although many advances have been made in the understanding of superconductivity over the years it is not yet in everyday use in our homes.
Superconductors based on the Josephson Effect have however come into being and found wide usage in the scientific world. Perhaps the most widespread use is in superconducting quantum interference devices which have the wonderful abbreviation of SQUIDS and measure extremely small changes in magnetic fields.
For his prediction of the Josephson Effect he was awarded the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics. The official citation from the Nobel Committee explains he was awarded the prize:
- “for his theoretical predictions of the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier, in particular those phenomena which are generally known as the Josephson effects.”
which the Nobel website explains by:
- In quantum physics matter is described as both waves and particles. One result of this is the tunneling phenomenon, which means that particles can pass through barriers that they should not be able to squeeze through according to classic physics. In 1962 Brian Josephson predicted unexpected results with superconductors, material that at low temperatures lacks electrical resistance. Without superimposed voltage, a current can result between two superconductors that are separated by a thin insulator. If a rectified voltage is added, on the other hand, an alternating current can result.
After his PhD, Josephson served as a research professor at the University of Illinois, USA, from 1965–66 and in 1967 he returned to Cambridge University as assistant director of research.
Pioneer of the paranormal
Ever since returning to Cambridge he has tended to work outside what people would consider as mainstream physics. Indeed, it could be said that he works in areas that are anathema to most physicists. He started studying the relationship between music, language and mind and in the early 1970s, started practising transcendental meditation and trying to find a scientific basis for telepathy. He has studied the brain and the paranormal for over 30 years.
In the 1970s he witnessed first-hand the metal-bending skills of Matthew Manning (similar skills to those of Uri Geller) and was intrigued by what he saw. He is quoted as saying “I think we are on the verge of discoveries which may be extremely important for physics. We are dealing with a new kind of energy. This force must be subject to laws. I believe ordinary methods of scientific investigation will tell us a lot more about psychic phenomena”.
He worked out of a cluttered office on the top floor of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.
He describes himself as ‘the resident heretic’. Brian Josephson certainly has a reputation for being notoriously brilliant but also for taking on controversial subjects such as telepathy and the relation of mind and matter.
He retired in 2007 as a professor at Cambridge and is now emeritus professor, still based in the city. Presently he serves as director of the mind–matter unification project in the Theory of Condensed Matter research group. It is safe to say that he still goes by his guiding principle of ‘nullius in verba’ – take nobody’s word for it.
Brian married Carol Olivier in Cambridge in 1976 and they have one daughter Miranda Josephson. Brian’s abilities are not only in physics. He can also play music and has been known to compose pieces, so why not sit back and listen to his composition and see if it inspires you to come up with a new theory.
Jan 2022 Update: Brian Josephson has kindly added some more information and clarification to the above article – see below in the comments section.
“This was in the days when computers were the size of a whole room and built using valves.”
Brian didn’t need a computer when he happily entertained other school boys waiting at the bus terminus at the junction of Dorchester Avenue with Earl’s Court Road. He would amaze us by performing seemingly impossible calculations in his head such how many seconds there were in thousands of years.
Remember him well was in junior school with him
Very accurate history (Google directed me this page when I did a search for something)! A few minor points though: (i) the school where my father taught was originally Howard Gardens, not so near where we lived. It moved at one point and became the Howardian; (ii) my first paper was actually a mathematical one: ‘an alternative proof of a theorem on the Lebesgue integral’. Re the other paper, the reason why Harwell sent a car to collect me was that they wanted to get the result published as soon as possible, before the opposition in the US did; (iii) I wouldn’t exactly say I have ‘the ability to play music’ — I can play four instruments, but each one very badly. After playing on the piano the initial version of my composition, just a simple sequence of notes, I took to using computer software, entering the 1000 odd notes one by one over a period of time, followed by playing the result each time to see what it sounded like.
I was very sorry to learn some time back that Penylan Observatory, ten minutes’ walk from our house, where I spent many enjoyable hours observing, no longer exists.