Bertram Brockhouse

Bertram BrockhouseBertram Brockhouse (1918-2003)
The Nobel Prize in Physics 1994

Bertram Neville Brockhouse was born July 15, 1918 in Lethbridge, Alberta, the son of Israel and Mable Brockhouse. At age eight he moved with his family to Vancouver, British Columbia. After graduating from high school in 1935, he worked as a laboratory assistant, and then as a self-employed radio repairman, both in Vancouver and in Chicago. He spent the war years in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve as an electronics technician repairing submarine detection equipment at a base in Nova Scotia. In 1945, thanks to financial support provided by Veterans Affairs to help ex-soldiers make the move back to civilian life, Brockhouse enrolled at the University of British Columbia, from which he graduated in 1947 with first class honours in mathematics and physics. He entered the University of Toronto later that same year and obtained his Ph.D. in 1950, with a thesis entitled “The Effect of Stress and Temperature upon the Magnetic Properties of Ferromagnetic Materials”.

In July 1950 Brockhouse joined the staff of the Atomic Energy Project of the National Research Council of Canada, later to become Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories about 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. Brockhouse’s first work at Chalk River involved him in a series of studies of the resonant scattering of slow neutrons by strong absorbers such as cadmium and samarium.

Later that year it was decided that the study of the inelastic scattering of slow neutrons was feasible at the Chalk River NRX (National Research Experimental) reactor, which was at the time the world’s highest flux beam reactor. In the early months of 1952 Brockhouse put together what he described as a “large aperture double spectrometer”, in reality a triple-axis machine, hoping to be able “to measure the as yet unknown frequency distribution of normal modes” in a crystal. In the late 1950s and early 1960s scientists from a number of countries visited Chalk River in order to observe and learn the new “Methods for Neutron Spectrometry” that Brockhouse and his colleagues had developed.

Bert Brockhouse did not have very much spare time during his highly productive years at Chalk River, but he did find time to take part in a number of amateur dramatic presentations, operettas, and musical productions. He enjoyed music enormously and was known for singing musical excerpts, whether from an opera or a Broadway musical, while working at one of his neutron experiments.

In 1962 Brockhouse moved to McMaster University where he served as Professor of Physics until his retirement in 1984. He was chairman of the Department from 1967 to 1970. At McMaster he took an active part in teaching, and was able to communicate his enthusiasm for physics to undergraduate and graduate students alike. He was influential in building up the Department, and he and his graduate students built new spectrometers at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor, and later at the Chalk River NRU reactor.

Brockhouse at work
Brockhouse at work.

Professor Brockhouse received many honours over the years, including the Tory Medal of the Royal Society of Canada, the Buckley Prize of the American Physical Society, and the Order of Canada. In 1994, some 35 years after the original research was conducted, Dr. Brockhouse shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in the 1950s at NRX, which advanced the detection and analysis techniques used in the field of neutron scattering for condensed matter research. Bertram Brockhouse spent his retirement years in Ancaster, Ontario, until his death on October 13, 2003.