Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Henry Moseley -- The Lost Genius Part II

1.  A Very English Childhood

Henry Gwyn Jeffreys Moseley was born on November 23rd 1887 in Weymouth, a seaside town in Dorset on the south coast of England. In the same month the results of what has come to be known as the most famous “failed” scientific experiment in history were published. For centuries scientists believed light waves travel through the “ether” in the same way as sound waves travel through the air. During 1887 in Cleveland, Ohio, Albert Michelson (1852 – 1931) and Edward Morley (1838 – 1923) had attempted to measure the speed at which the Earth moves through the ether. To their surprise, Michelson and Morley discovered the ether doesn’t exist. This was a shock because the ether was one of the pillars of classical physics, the physics of Sir Isaac Newton that had endured for over two hundred years. The Michelson-Morley Experiment was the beginning of the end for classical physics, so it is perhaps appropriate this should have coincided with the birth of another great experimenter who would also rip up the textbooks.

Harry Moseley, as he was known throughout his life, had been born in a seaside town because his father, also called Henry, was suffering from a debilitating neuro-muscular disease and had retired early from his post as Linacre Professor of Anatomy at Oxford University. Back then, medical science could offer sufferers of neuro-muscular conditions little more than fresh air, a decent diet, and as much peace and quiet as possible. Henry died aged forty-seven in 1891, when Harry was not quite four years old.

Harry was born into a family of scientists so it is perhaps not surprising he would follow in their footsteps. Of course, the family hadn’t always been scientists. The first of the Moseleys operated a Hackney Coach in London during the late-18th century. Today, he would be called a taxi driver. His son, William Moseley (1760 – 1850), began life as an apprentice engraver and then, after a career as an unlicensed physician, set up a small school. The second of William’s nine children was the first Henry Moseley (1801 – 1872). Henry – Harry’s grandfather – was the family member who raised the Moseleys up in the world. Originally a shipwright, Henry became a naval architect. By working in the evenings as a private tutor, he saved up enough money to enter St. Johns College at Cambridge University where he studied mathematics. Henry was then ordained as a priest before becoming the first Professor of Natural Philosophy (physics) at King’s College, London University. Whilst at school, Henry had published an article describing a method of measuring the depth of the craters on the Moon, and would later publish books on mathematics, astronomy and engineering.


Harry’s father, Henry Nottidge Moseley (1844 – 1891), studied Natural Sciences at Oxford University, and then medicine at London University. He had always considered natural history to be his true calling, so gave up medicine to join the Challenger Expedition that circumnavigated the globe between 1872 and 1876. The primary role of HMS Challenger had been to study the floors of the world’s oceans. This was perhaps the first example of far-reaching scientific research being funded by business interests – the Challenger Expedition was financed by telegraph companies who needed to know the topography of the oceans in order to safely lay their inter-continental cables. During the expedition Henry discovered many new species of marine animals, and his examination of these added support to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. In 1881 Henry married Amabel Gwyn Jeffries, and in the same year was appointed to the professorship in Oxford.

On the maternal side of his family, Harry Moseley’s grandfather was John Gwyn Jeffreys (1809 – 1885), a biologist who specialised in molluscs. Jeffreys had trained as a barrister, but as soon as he had acquired a comfortable lifestyle and sufficient capital he retired from the law and mounted a series of dredging expeditions using his private yacht Osprey. In those days scientific research was more heavy-handed than it is now. Nevertheless, by scouring the seabed John Gwyn Jeffreys learned a great deal about the creatures living buried beneath the sands. Jeffreys also published a number of reference books that were for decades the standard texts on molluscs, shellfish and other forms of marine species.

*   *   *

Harry was the youngest of four children, and the only boy in the Moseley family. His earliest memories were of having to be exceptionally quiet around the house due to his father’s illness. As he grew up he found these memories particularly sad because he learned his father had been a gregarious and fun-loving man. To counterbalance the silence of the house, as often as possible the children played in the garden or explored in the nearby meadows and woods. Even at this very early age “Boy”, as he was sometimes called, collected insects and flowers. During trips to the beach he would collect shells and sometimes small crabs, which he would take home in a jar. In the evenings he would make crude drawings of his specimens. If ever someone was destined to become a scientist, Harry Moseley was.

Though fully expected, the death of Henry Nottidge Moseley was a shattering blow to his family. Harry was heartbroken and withdrew into his little world of insects, plants and drawings. Within a few months the family moved to Chilworth, a village near Guilford in Surrey. As is often the case with a young widow, Amabel Moseley began to lean on her son as a surrogate husband. Aged just four, Harry had become the man of the Moseley Household. A year or so after his father’s death, Harry’s youngest sister, also called Amebel, died. Very little is known about the circumstances, but the six-year-old probably contracted diphtheria. Loosing children at an early age was not unusual in Victorian times, but that would not have lessened the sorrow. For a while after the deaths of his father and sister, Harry was particularly lonely because his older sisters, Elizabeth and Margery, were sent to a private school in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, about forty kilo-metres away.


Amabel Moseley appointed private tutors for her son, and very soon Harry was showing precocious talent for mathematics, music and languages. As the months passed Harry began to overcome his loss by engrossing himself in his studies, something his father would have been proud of. During the school holidays, Betty and Mar, as his sisters were known, filled the house with laughter. The three children, to the delight of their mother, put on plays, often in French or German, and performed small musical concerts for the entertainment of family friends. Harry was also proving to be good with his hands, and with some help from an uncle he made a wood and glass display cabinet for his ever-growing collections of dried flowers, insects, shells and birds’ eggs.

For his eighth birthday in November 1895, Harry was given a small brass microscope. In a letter written many years later he described his delight at using this instrument to see “invisible things”. By another strange synchronicity, in the very same month Harry received his microscope, the German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen (1845 – 1923) discovered X-rays. These mysterious rays would play a critical role in Harry Moseley’s work as a scientist, enabling him to penetrate deep inside atoms and see “invisible things” undreamed of when he was a boy.

Harry Moseley was determined to follow in the family tradition and become a scientist, an ambition whole-heartedly supported by his mother. To do so he would have to study at university – and bearing in mind his father’s career, Oxford was the only option. A century ago, entry into Oxford was virtually guaranteed provided a pupil attended the right schools. So, in September of 1896 Harry Moseley was enrolled at Summer Fields, a boarding school located in the countryside north of Oxford. Summer Fields is a “prep” school where pupils are sent to prepare for entry into either a private school or a “public” school such as Harrow or Eton. Harry shone at Summer Fields, regularly coming top in mathematics and science, and winning numerous prizes.

Whilst at Summer Fields, Harry began his habit of writing lengthy letters describing what he had been up to, his thoughts, and asking for advice and opinions from his family. In 1897 Harry wrote a letter that shows him to be as mischievous as any other ten-year-old boy:

“… I got in the Black Book once but as I was in the Sick Room I could not get punished for it on Saturday, it was for fighting with another boy … I have still got most of the letters you sent me, I have got about 16 of them. Huge amounts of love from your loving Boy.”

In the summer of 1899, the Moseley family was hit by another blow when sixteen-year-old Betty died of tuber-culosis. Harry, who was then eleven, was inconsolable. The death of his eldest sister drew Harry even closer to his mother, and also to his only remaining sister Mar, who became his confidante. In the coming years Harry would ask Mar’s advice on anything and everything, and would share with her all aspects of his private life, and later his professional life as a scientist and then as a soldier.

Soon after Betty’s death, Amabel Moseley moved back to Oxford. By nature, Amabel was as lively and fun-loving as her husband had been, and in previous years had enjoyed an active social life in Oxford. She was keen to return to a life where she could set aside her heartache through attending concerts and lectures, and also by indulging her passion for chess (she would become the British Ladies Chess Champion in 1913). Living in Oxford made sense to Amabel because Harry was at school nearby, and fifteen-year-old Margery was just about to leave school at High Wycombe. In those days girls lived at home until they became engaged to be married, and Amabel was certain that Oxford would be the best place for her daughter to meet a suitable husband. (By the time Mar was married in 1909 she had become an accomplished amateur scientist. Some of her research on single cell animals was published in the Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society.)

*   *   *

Henry Nottidge Moseley had made sure his family were well provided for, and in particular he had left funds for his children’s education. However, in an early example of his maturity, Harry had set himself the task of paying for his own education by winning a scholarship to Eton, one of England’s foremost public schools.

In June of 1901 Harry Moseley sat the King’s Scholarship exams at Eton College in Windsor, Berkshire, just west of London. When the results came in, Harry was placed fifth out of the seventy candidates who won scholarships. The following September, he took up his place at the five-hundred-year-old school. Despite being by definition the brightest pupils at Eton, the “Collegers”, as the King’s Scholarship students are called, were looked down on by the one thousand or so fee-paying students, known as the “Opiddans”. In the peculiar snobbery then rife in the public school system of England, being clever was considered inferior to being the offspring of a wealthy family.

The ultimate snobbery at Eton was “fagging”, the system in which younger scholarship students acted as servants to older fee-paying students. The duties of a “fag” included running errands, polishing shoes, lighting fires and cooking breakfast. Harry appears to have carried out his fagging duties without complaint. In a letter to his sister he mentions the “… absurd fag plan” and seems to have been bemused rather than distressed by the archaic practice. Since his father was dead, Harry considered himself responsible for the well-being of his mother and sister. Consequently, paying his own way at Eton – even if that meant being treated like a lackey – gave Harry a sense of pride most of his wealthy school-fellows could not understand. One thing his school-fellows did understand, however, was that Harry would not be bullied. Generally he was good natured, but beneath the surface there was a steely strength of character not to be messed with.


Harry had no difficulty making friends and was popular with his school-mates. Most of his friends were fellow-Collegers, and he seems to have spent little time mixing with the fee-paying students. This could have been due to their snobbish attitude towards Collegers, but is more likely because few, if any, were passionate about science. Harry loved sports, especially cricket and rugby, but was never good enough to be chosen for the “1st” teams. He was, though, proficient at the “Wall Game”, the peculiar version of rugby football played at Eton. Rowing was Harry’s favourite sport, and he spent most Sunday afternoons on the Thames with his friends.

Judging by the letters to his mother and sister, the years Harry Moseley spent at Eton College were happy enough. Harry usually mentions only in passing that he achieved top marks in such-and-such an exam. His letters are mostly enthusiastic accounts of his day-to-day life at school or of his excitement when he learned a new scientific fact:

“… sausages and potato mash. After supper I had a tub and went to bed. In the morning I got up at 6.50 and had a roll, butter and tea … I am astonished to hear that Helium is four or five times as heavy as Hydrogen, though it has a lower boiling point.”

His mother and sister must have found the descriptions of Harry Moseley’s schooldays enjoyable because they usually reply by asking for more information.

Eton College has a long history of producing British politicians, including nineteen Prime Ministers. Eton also has a long history of producing leading soldiers. One of the most famous “Old Etonians” was Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, who was both soldier and Prime Minister. Wellington – the “Iron Duke” – allegedly claimed the Battle of Waterloo was “won on the playing fields of Eton”. This spirit of patriotism echoed through the corridors, classrooms and dormitories of the Eton Harry knew, and was as much a part of the curriculum as Latin and mathematics. At the time when Harry was first studying at Eton, Great Britain was fighting the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902) in South Africa, so patriotism was at a high. Though Harry doesn’t mention the Boer War in any of his letters to his mother or sister, he would have been aware of the fervour. Little more than a decade later, the feelings of patriotism would rise up in Harry Moseley and inspire his decision to do his bit to defend his country.

*   *   *

In his later years at Eton, Harry’s science teacher was the lovable eccentric Dr. Thomas “T. C.” Porter. At the beginning of the first lesson with his new pupils, Porter would hand one of them a jar of clear liquid. When the pupil asked what was in the jar, Porter would reply: “Nitro-glycerine”. T. C. Porter firmly believed a challenging experiment was worth a thousand words in a textbook. Under Porter’s guidance Harry became a diligent experimenter, developing the practical skills that would become so useful in his future career as a scientist. T.C. Porter, to the consternation of the head-master, also believed in straying from the school curriculum. On one occasion he described how a decade earlier he had been amongst the first people in Britain to experiment with X-rays. Coincidentally, Harry Moseley would later make his name by using X-rays to investigate the secrets of atomic structure. But the most important lesson Harry learned from T.C. Porter was to treat scientific dogma as a danger to be avoided.

During 1906, his final year at Eton, Harry Moseley won the physics and chemistry prizes. These achievements were Harry’s crowning glory as a schoolboy, and an indication of his potential as a university student. In the June, Harry sat the examinations for one of only fourteen scholarships then available to study science at Oxford. This compares to the seventy-five scholarships for Classics, the study of the language and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. A century ago, Oxford University was still rooted in the Classics, and in history, literature, philosophy and law, and was something of a backwater for science. Cambridge University, the alma mater of Isaac Newton, was where science was practiced and taught. But Harry Moseley had made up his mind to study at Oxford, where his father had studied and had later become a professor. His first choice was for a place at Balliol College, which did have a reputation for taking science seriously.

Against expectations, Harry did not win a scholarship to study at Balliol. It seems, however, he was failed on a technicality – his poor handwriting, which was described as looking like he had “used a splinter of wood dipped in ink”. (Though Harry was never to learn this, he had been denied a Balliol scholarship because the only one left that year had already been promised to Julian Huxley, his friend at Eton.) Harry could have entered Balliol as a fee-paying student, but chose not to – he wanted to pay his own way through university and not draw on the money left by his father. So, he sat the scholarship examination for Balliol’s next-door neighbour, Trinity College. He passed with the highest marks.

*   *   *

Harry Moseley was born in the same year the Michelson-Morley Experiment had showed there was something wrong with classical physics. The years Harry spent at Eton College – 1901 to 1906 – witnessed a revolution in science not seen since the days of Galileo and Isaac Newton. In 1901 the German scientist Max Planck (1858 – 1947) published the results of his study of “black-body” radiation. Black-bodies absorb all wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, but only re-radiate this at a single wavelength that depends on the temperature of the black-body. Classical physics could not explain this. However, if energy exists as discrete packets, which Planck called “quanta” (plural of “quantum”), black body radiation makes sense. This was the first step towards a proper understanding of the inner-workings of atoms. In 1905, Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), an unknown clerk working in the Swiss Patent Office, published his Special Theory of Relativity. According to Einstein, matter and energy were one and the same, space could shrink, and time could run slow. This was the first step towards a new understanding of gravity and cosmology.

News of this scientific revolution was just beginning to filter into Oxford University at the time when Harry Moseley was taking up his place at Trinity College. Harry had been fortunate to be born at exactly the right time to play a vital role.
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