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Norman Feather

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Title: Norman Feather  
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Subject: Egon Bretscher, List of Fellows of the Royal Society elected in 1945, Ernest Rutherford, Bridlington School, Royal Society of Edinburgh
Collection: 1904 Births, 1978 Deaths, Academics of the University of Edinburgh, Alumni of Trinity College, Cambridge, English Nuclear Physicists, English Physicists, Fellows of the Royal Society, Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, Manhattan Project People, Nuclear Weapons Programme of the United Kingdom, People Educated at Bridlington School, People from Calderdale (District), Presidents of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
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Norman Feather

Norman Feather
Born (1904-11-16)16 November 1904
Pecket Well, Yorkshire
Died 14 August 1978(1978-08-14) (aged 73)
Fields Physics, Nuclear Physics
Institutions University of Cambridge, University of Edinburgh
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Thesis A study of certain corpuscular radiations of the active deposits of radium and thorium by the expansion chamber method[1] (1931)
Doctoral advisor Ernest Rutherford [1]
Known for Creation and fission of plutonium by neutrons, important for nuclear weapons
Notable awards Fellow of the Royal Society[2] (1945)
Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1946)
RSE Makdougall Brisbane Prize (1970)

Norman Feather FRS[2] FRSE PRSE (16 November 1904, Pecket Well, Yorkshire – 14 August 1978, Christie Hospital, Manchester),[3] was an English nuclear physicist. Feather and Egon Bretscher were working at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge in 1940, when they proposed that the 239 isotope of element 94 (plutonium) would be better able to sustain a nuclear chain reaction. This research, a breakthrough, was part of the Tube Alloys project, the secret British project during World War II to develop nuclear weapons.

Feather was the author of a series of noted introductory texts on the history, fundamental concepts, and meaning of physics.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Career 2
  • Books 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

Early life and education

His father was headmaster at his first school. He was then educated at Bridlington Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, becoming a Fellow of Trinity College from 1929 to 1933 then Fellow and Lecturer in Natural Sciences there from 1936 to 1945. Feather received his doctorate at Cambridge in 1931 under James Chadwick and Ernest Rutherford.[4] His research employed a Wilson cloud chamber and focused on the problem of the long-range alpha particles.


Feather conducted some of the earliest investigations of the neutron following its discovery by James Chadwick at Cambridge in 1932.[5] Indeed, Feather assisted Chadwick with his initial investigations leading to the discovery. The radioactive polonium source Chadwick used to discover the neutron was derived from old radon tubes that had been acquired by Feather from Kelly Hospital in Baltimore during a year-long visit to Johns Hopkins University in 1929. Feather obtained the first evidence that neutrons can produce nuclear disintegrations.[6][7][8] The year 1932 would later be referred to as the "annus mirabilis" for nuclear physics in the Cavendish Laboratory.[9]

In 1940 Feather and Egon Bretscher at the Cavendish Laboratory, made a breakthrough in nuclear research for the Tube Alloys project. They proposed that the 239 isotope of element 94 could be produced from the common isotope of uranium-238 by neutron capture. Like U-235, this new element should be able to sustain a nuclear chain reaction. A slow neutron reactor fueled with uranium would, in theory, produce substantial amounts of plutonium-239 as a by-product, since U-238 absorbs slow neutrons to form the new isotope U-239. This nuclide rapidly emits an electron, decaying into an element with a mass of 239 and an atomic number of 93. This nuclide then emits another electron to become a new element still of mass 239, but with an atomic number 94 and a much greater half-life.

Bretscher and Feather showed theoretically feasible grounds that element 94 would be readily 'fissionable' by both slow and fast neutrons, and had the added advantage of being chemically different from uranium and therefore could easily be separated from it. This was confirmed independently in 1940 by cyclotron rather than a reactor.

Feather was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh from 1945 to 1975, then Emeritus Professor. He was active in nuclear physics research throughout his career, preferring small-scale, modest experiments, rather than the large experiments that became common after the war.[10] Feather was noted for his active service to the University of Edinburgh and the city of Edinburgh.

Feather was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1945. From 1946 he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE) and was president of that Society from 1967 to 1970.


  • N. Feather, An Introduction to Nuclear Physics, Cambridge University Press, 1936. ASIN B00085IOJG
  • N. Feather, Lord Rutherford, Blackie & Son, 1940. ASIN B0006APC66
  • N. Feather, Nuclear Stability Rules, Cambridge University Press, 1952. ASIN B0007IW0BM
  • N. Feather, Mass Length and Time, Edinburgh University Press, 1962. ASIN B000XWAWI0
  • N. Feather, Vibrations and Waves, Edinburgh University Press, 1963. ASIN B000FSNW0W
  • N. Feather, Electricity and Matter: An introductory survey, Edinburgh University Press, 1968. ASIN B00KO6MLPM
  • N. Feather, Matter and Motion, Penguin Books Ltd., 1970. ISBN 978-0140801286


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  3. ^ , rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009, accessed 26 Jan 2013Feather, Norman (1904–1978)Wilkinson:
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External links

  • Oral History interview transcript with Norman Feather, 25 February & 5 November 1971, American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library and Archives
  • Who Was Who 1971-1980 (A & C Black, London)
  • Professor Norman Feather Feather History
  • Norman Feather 1904-1978 Eminent Cavendish Physicists
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