Cecil Powell

Banquet speech

Cecil Powell’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1950

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Those placed in the position which I now occupy, commonly feel concern about their worthiness to receive the great honour which has been done them. How much more must this be so in my own case for I am conscious not only of the great names and achievements of those who have preceded me, but also of the living presence of many of my masters and teachers.

I am the fortunate representative of a group of many scientists, drawn from more than 20 nations, who have worked together in great harmony in Bristol in contributing to the development of a new tool in nuclear physics – a new method of making manifest the tracks of atomic particles in their passage through matter. Any device in science is a window on to nature, and each new window contributes to the breadth of our view. The particular features of the photographic method of detecting atomic particles enabled us to establish the existence of transient forms of matter which had escaped recognition by other methods.

In the course of this work, my colleagues and I have been deeply impressed by the powerful constructive forces which are set free when the representatives of many national traditions work harmoniously together for a common purpose. Within the limits of a single laboratory, we have experienced the invigorating effects of that international collaboration which is the life blood of the sciences in general. And this experience has given us some small insight into the tremendous advances which will become possible for humanity when that vision of a peaceful world and the fraternity of nations, which has animated men of good will since the beginning of history, has been made a reality. Make it so we shall because we must, and then we shall surely go out and conquer the universe.

In all our work, my colleagues and I have received inspiration even when we were least conscious of it, from those great aims of natural philosophy which were embodied in the doctrine of Utility and Progress, so clearly enunciated by my great country-man Francis Bacon; from that philanthropia, that love of humanity, which asserts that nothing is too trivial for the attention of the wisest which is capable of giving pleasure or pain to the meanest. These are the same aims which animated those who formulated the Code of Statutes of the Nobel Foundation. They are our most precious heritage; the source of our moral prestige without which we tend to become merely clever and lacking in humanity. May they ever be cherished so that we may all become, in Bacon’s own words, the benefactors indeed of the human race, the propagators of man’s empire over the universe, the champions of liberty and the conquerors and subduers of necessities.

Permit me to thank you for the great honour you have done me; for myself since you allow me to think that I have made some small contribution to that great scientific tradition in which I have been fostered, and which is part of the glory of my country; for my family, in giving us a most memorable experience on which we shall look back with great pleasure all our lives; and for my colleagues, because, in honouring me, you honour them also.

Cecil Powell’s Address to the University Students on the Evening of December 10, 1950

My dear students, students of Sweden, I have the privilege of replying to your kind greetings on behalf of the assembled Nobel Laureates.

It has seemed to me possible that if you have read of the great names and achievements of those assembled in this Hall – and if you have heard the speeches this afternoon about this year’s prizemen – that you might have reached the conclusion that everything possible has been written or discovered – that nothing remains to be done. Let me do what I can to remove any such impression.

Twenty five years ago, when I was a student under Lord Rutherford, he used to conclude the series of lectures in which he had described the then recent great advances in our knowledge of the atomic nuclei, by saying “It’s all right boys, don’t worry, we haven’t discovered it all; much remains to be done”. Surely I speak for my generation when, in turn, I say “It’s all right, boys and girls, nature is inexhaustible and the process of discovery endless”. All of us, of course, feel with Newton, that we are like boys who have picked up a few bright pebbles on the beach, whilst the great ocean of truth opens out before us.

You then will join us in the task, and will continue when we shall leave it. Let me wish you good fortune and persistence. Good fortune, for chance plays some role in the lives of scientists as in all human affairs, and opportunity does not knock with equal insistence on every man’s door. And persistence in order that you may take advantage of opportunity when it comes. In this connection let me quote some words of a Greek philosopher, a natural philosopher, who more than two thousand years ago wrote to this effect: “Those who are altogether unaccustomed to research are at the first exercise of their intelligence befogged and blinded and quickly desist owing to fatigue and failure of intellectual power, like those who without training attempt a race. But one who is accustomed to investigations, worming his way through and turning in all directions, does not give up the search, I will not say day or night, but his whole life long. He will not rest, but will turn his attention to one thing after another which he considers relevant to the subject under investigation until he arrives at the solution of his problem.” This is the authentic voice of the spirit of enquiry, coming to us across the centuries, a voice which has a message for us all.

We thank you most warmly for your good wishes and for your delightful entertainment. May you contribute to the great Swedish traditions in the arts and sciences which give such lustre to the Nobel foundation.

Prior to the speech, Robin FĂ„hraeus, member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, addressed the laureate: “Professor Cecil Powell. The field of scholarship in which you are a prominent representative, is the one which is mentioned first in Nobel’s will, perhaps in a premonition that it was in the field of physics that the most revolutionary growth of human knowledge was to take place. You have established one of the most important technical foundations for a further development of nuclear physics. We feel happy and proud to greet you here today.”

From Les Prix Nobel en 1950, Editor Arne Holmberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1951

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1950

To cite this section
MLA style: Cecil Powell – Banquet speech. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Mon. 11 Dec 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1950/powell/speech/>

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