Bertram N. Brockhouse


It appears that I was born in hospital in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada on July 15, 1918. My first memories are of a farm near Milk River where I lived with my mother and father and my sister, Alice Evelyn, and a variety of farm and domestic animals. My father, Israel Bertram Brockhouse, had homesteaded with other members of his family in 1910. He had spent his years to that time in the United States after being brought to this continent at two years of age from the family’s native Yorkshire. My mother, Mable Emily (Neville) Brockhouse had grown up in Illinois, the product of uncounted generations of North American English people. As the years went on there were two other children born: Robert Paul, who died in infancy, and Gordon Edgar who became much later a railroad civil engineer. In the winter of 1926-27 our family moved to Vancouver B.C. and it was in that city my sister and brother and I grew up.

My sister entered the school system in a normal way. But I had been a somewhat nominal attendee of the one-room elementary school a couple of miles from our farm and my preparation for the system was somewhat mixed. I must have learned to read and to do simple arithmetic at a very early age because I cannot remember ever learning these subjects. But in other ways I was much behind my potential classmates. But the fine Vancouver schools I attended (Central and then Lord Roberts elementary schools and King George High School – and the Sunday School of St. John’s United Church) soon took care of this. So I had what I believe to be a good basic education, except for social and organizational defects probably arising from the facts that I found school work easy and that I was younger than most of my classmates.

There were other people of course who had influence on me. These included my two aunts: Edith (Neville) Murphy in Chicago and Maude (Brockhouse) Smith in western Canada. My older cousin Wilbert B. Smith may have inspired an early interest in radio technology.

Our family finances were somewhat precarious so I carried newspapers for most of my teens. But the Great Depression made things worse and in 1935 our family moved by train to Chicago in the hope of bettering the situation. I had completed High School by this time and took some evening courses at Central YMCA College (now Roosevelt University). I was interested in the technical aspects of radios and learned to repair and design and build them. This and my facility with mathematics was, I suppose, what pointed me eventually in the direction of physics. For part of our time in Chicago I worked as a lab assistant in a small electronic firm, Aubert Controls Corporation. But the company failed in the recession of 1937. In 1938 our family decided to return to Vancouver and we drove across the continent, all of us I think enjoying the experience.

In Chicago I had begun to repair radios as a small business and I continued this in Vancouver. My parents ran a small grocery store but neither enterprise was really successful. I had always been interested in politics but now I began to take part as an active member of the leftist party of the era, the CCF. My adherence to the CCF continued for many years, in fact until I became an employee of the Dominion Government in the shape of the Chalk River Laboratory. (I understood then (and still do) that there is something dishonourable in a democratic society for a Government employee being other than politically neutral). I was profoundly anti-totalitarian and hence anticommunist so that when World War II erupted I was motivated from many sides to join the military. On September 26, 1939 I enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy with the design of becoming a Radio Telegrapher. In the event I spent some months at sea as a seaman and ASDIC operator but spent most of my six years in the Navy servicing ASDIC equipment at a shore base. In 1944 I was enrolled in a six-month course in Electrical Engineering at Nova Scotia Technical College and then as a newly-minted Electrical Sub-Lieutenant assigned to the test facilities at the National Research Council in Ottawa. It was there that I met Doris Miller, the girl who later became my wife.

The war having ended, in late August 1945 I was drafted home to Vancouver and was discharged from the Navy on September 11 1945, under the principle “first in – first out”. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs was ready to supply finances for either a small land-holding or for training or education. Thus the way was clear for me to start immediately at the University of British Columbia. My preparation was such that the obvious choices for my course of study was either Electrical Engineering or Physics and I chose to enroll in Physics and Mathematics. I did very well in my first year, actually winning a scholarship. The university life was probably not typical because many of us were older than would normally have been the case. It was not all study, I operated also a (very) small business which eased our financial problems and I owned a motorcycle for transportation and enjoyment.

In the summer of 1946 after taking a summer class for extra credit, I took a vacation on my motorcycle, going all the way to Ottawa via Chicago. This was probably a decisive step in my life because I took up with Dorie again. With time short I returned with my motorcycle by train to Vancouver. Just before Christmas of 1946 my father died. He had long been troubled with a heart condition so his death was not a surprise. In the spring of the year Alice married so our family was now considerably changed. I had received some University credit for my irregular courses in mathematics and electricity and together with overload credits I was able to complete my B.A. program in April. I had been offered a summer job in the Nationel Research Council laboratory (the electrical standards section) so off I went to Ottawa again. There Dorie and I became engaged to be married.

It had been arranged that I should return to Vancouver to take a Master’s degree course but instead I went to the Low Temperature Laboratory of the University of Toronto. This was one of the two Universities in Canada to offer Ph. D. programs at that time (the other was McGill in Montreal). Being already 29 years of age I was very anxious to embark on my physics career. Furthermore, partly no doubt for financial reasons, DVA was very keen that I do my studies in Canada. So I started work under the guidance of Professors Hugh Grayson-Smith and James Reekie on the effects of stress and temperature on ferro-magnetism and finished a Master’s program in the then normal period of eight months. In May, Dorie and I were married in the village of Kirkfield, the old home of her family. For the remainder of the summer we lived in Ottawa, Dorie continuing as a film technician at the National Film Board while I worked as a summer student in the acoustics section of the National Research Council. The more passive part of my education was now complete. The instruction via course-work which I received at UBC and Toronto was probably as good as I could reasonably have expected. Certainly I remember almost all the teachers and courses with fondness. Partly because my mind was “already formed” I suppose, I did not become comfortable with Quantum Mechanics and indeed never did so. The classical nature of the small researches I performed contributed to what was probably an “old-fashioned outlook” even at the time. And now I was forced to assume full responsibility for my future – and the future of my new family.

The Low-Temperature Laboratory at Toronto was long-established and reasonably well-equipped. But at this point my supervisors both left to assume more senior positions at other institutions. Furthermore the third faculty member in the Lab also left. So I was left essentially unsupervised and should also have moved – except that we were now expecting the birth of our first child. But happily, as we thought, Sir Edward Bullard, an expert in earthmagnetism, was coming to head the Department – and to assume direction of my thesis work. If he had stayed for longer than he did then possibly I would have changed my field and worked on the earth-magnetism problems then very current and in which I had some interest. But he left to assume a high position in the U.K. so ultimately I had to do the best I could while receiving every possible help from the Department.

My thesis subject was a contribution to Solid State physics which involved experiments at both low and high temperatures. There were a few books on the general subject, two excellent ones being by Frederick Seitz and by N.F. Mott and H. Jones. These I to a considerable extent devoured. I had had lectures on the subject from Grayson-Smith and had a small correspondence with him. I had courses in Thermodynamics, Statistical Mechanics and Theory of Errors. I took a course on Nuclear Theory from my friend Melvin Preston, who was then at Toronto. So I was not too badly prepared in a general way for work on the periphery of Nuclear Energy, when the chance to work at Chalk River was offered to me.

In August 1950 I went up to Deep River, in the van carrying our belongings, while Dorie (and baby Ann) stayed with her parents in a cottage on Balsam Lake near Kirkfield. There I met Don Hurst in whose (neutron physics) group I was to work and saw the house on Hillcrest Ave which was assigned to us. In a short while Dorie (and Gordon-soon-to-be) and Ann joined me. There was still some work to do on my thesis so I would be very busy for the next months. But in October Gordie was born and I passed my Ph. D. exam and we were set for the next period of our lives.

We had originally thought of staying for only a few years and then going on, probably to a University. In the event we stayed for twelve years and four more children. As I progressed we moved (twice) to a better house as was the custom. Despite my long and irregular hours each of us had a social life and one together and we have kept in touch with some of our acquaintance then to this day. Since the work I did then represents a major part of the content of my lecture I will here be brief; I have reviewed it elsewhere – the major advance at this time in early 1951 was the realization that phonons could be studied by studying inelastic scattering and that evocative experiments to do so might be feasible at Chalk River.

The first actual experiments studied the scattering of neutrons by highly absorbing elements, in the process verifying the famous Breit-Wigner formula. This work (on scatterers Cd, Sm and Gd) was done in collaboration with Myer Bloom and D.G. Hurst and was published in Physical Review (1951) and in the Canadian Journal of Research (1953). The apparatus was later much mod)fied and used to study the inelastic scattering from several materials (Aluminium, Graphite and Diamond) by absorption methods. This was the first quantitative experiment in slow neutron spectroscopy and was published in Physical Review. Other experiments by absorption methods were done about the same time at Harwell by R.D. Lowde and P.A. Egelstaff; that by Ray Lowde was particularly significant as it went far to establish the concept “spin wave” on a microscopic basis.

Preparations were underway to attempt proper (differential) studies of inelastic scattering and some almost futile attempts had been made, when our work was terminated by an accident to the NRX high flux reactor which was the source of the neutrons we used. This occurred in November, 1952 and I did not resume actual experiments at NRX until the summer of 1954. Fortunately, I was invited to go to Brookhaven National Laboratory and was able to spend most of one year there with my family, returning to Deep River in February, 1954. The time was very profitable for me, I worked on several experiments, with collaborators and without. But I did not do any spectroscopic work though I met Donald Hughes and Harry Palevsky, now also thinking about inelastic scattering and in particular thinking about the “Cold Neutron” or (Beryllium) Filter-Chopper method. And I met Leon Van Hove and learned about the new generalized (time-dependent) correlations which Noel K. Pope and I were later to put to good use.

After NRX was available to us again in August 1954, things progressed rapidly. Because of the efforts of David G. Henshaw and Jack Freeborn, we had metal monochromators of greatly improved efficiency compared with the NaCl crystals which we were using in 1952. Alec T. Stewart was rapidly getting the Be/Pb Filter-Chopper apparatus together and the primitive Triple-Axis spectrometer was functioning. So I was able to present a paper with substantial (if primitive) results at the New York meeting of the American Physical Society at the end of January, 1955. Publications followed soon after, in Physical Review and in the Canadian Journal of Research.

In 1956 we were able to complete the first true Triple-Axis crystal spectrometer, though only for operation at constant incoming energy. The flexibility of operation and the accuracy of the results were both greatly improved. The “Constant Q Method” was invented in 1958 and at about the same time a new apparatus allowing operation with variable incoming energy was installed at the new high-flux reactor NRU. (Ed Glaser and William McAlphin played crucial roles in these developments.) With the considerable improvements in both the neutron flux and the operating conditions afforded by NRU the subject entered a new phase in 1959. The Triple-Axis spectrometer thereby reached nearly full development. Visitors from other countries were now arriving to spend time working in the group. (The first such visitor was P.K. Iyengar from India who with several others became a life-long friend.) From about 1958 on the interest shifted, from the neutron physics and the methods and the validity of the theory, to the specific results and interpretation for the specific speciment material.

In 1956 also Alec Stewart completed the Filter-Chopper apparatus. This was an equipment similar in general to that of Hughes and Palevsky; it was used in experiments on Aluminium and Vanadium, both chosen for the same good technical reasons that others chose to work on them. When Stewart left to become a professor at Dalhousie University I converted the instrument to the first “Rotating Crystal Spectrometer” – a bad choice of name as it should have been termed “Spinning Crystal”. This instrument was used principally to study liquids and polycrystals, as was its improved successor at the NRU reactor.

Three other major technological initiatives were taken. Filters of (large, perfect) single-crystals (quartz), preferably cooled to low temperatures, enabled major improvement in the ratio of slow neutrons to fast in the primary beam and thus in the signal to background ratio. The “Beryllium Detector” method was developed by enabling the Triple-Axis spectrometer to accept Beryllium polycrystalline filters in the scattered beam and thus, with incoming neutrons of variable energy, to get energy distributions in a different and sometimes advantageous manner – an inverse of the Filter-Chopper method. Finally profitable uses of the new material, pyrolitic graphite, were found – as filters and as crude monochromators.

As time went on I began to receive invitations to attend Conferences and colloquia. In 1957 I made my first trip to England and Europe. Aside from several seminars, I gave a paper in September at a Conference on the Physics and Chemistry of Liquids; held in Varenna on Lago di Como in Italy. My last stop was at a gathering in Stockholm of neutron scattering people. After giving my paper on the first day I became ill with “flu” and spent the next few days of my trip to Europe in hospital. Nevertheless the trip was very inspirational and rewarding. In October 1960, this time accompanied by Dorie, I made another trip to Europe, and gave papers at two IAEA Conferences in Vienna. One of these was the first of the IAEA Conferences on Inelastic Scattering that played such a large role in the development of the subject.

In 1958 our group was joined by A.D.B. (David) Woods, who from then on was my closest collaborator. Numerous people spent periods of time in the group. Of these I must mention William Cochran who collobarated in the project to study the lattice vibrations in alkali halide crystals and in the course of this work developed his well-known “shell model” for the atoms in these and other crystals. Following this, his student from Cambridge University, Roger A. Cowley, commenced his own long association with the group. In 1961 Gerald Dolling arrived after studies at Cambridge and Harwell (with G. L. Squires); he is the only person among those mentioned who is still active in the group.

Other colleagues at Chalk River and visistors there were important to my program. These included: I.L. (Dick) Fowler, Harris McCrady, Walther Woytowich, C.W. Crawford, C.E.L. Gingell, William Howell, G.R. DeMille, Guiseppe Caglioti, T. Arase, R.G. Johnson, K.R. Rao, M. Sakamoto, Hiroshi Watanable, Leo N. Becka, Roger N. Sinclair, B.A. Dasannacharya, R.H. (Bob) March, A.E. (Ted) Dixon, R. Sherman Weaver, J. Bergsman.

In 1962 I took up a position as Professor of Physics at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario. The research program that I had embarked on eleven years before had been successful beyond expectations and the field was becoming well established. For over fifteen years it had been my intention to take up a University career and in my mid-forties it seemed that “now” was the time if I were to do so. McMaster had a “swimming-pool” reactor which promised to make the transition easier on the research side. For social reasons I preferred not to join a mega-university or live in a mega-city, partly because I thought that it would be better for our family of six children. Dorie was supportive of these ideas. So off we went in the summer of 1962, first to a house in Dundas and soon after to the house in Ancaster in which we still live.

Chalk River had been very good to us. And now the Laboratory facilitated our transfer and encouraged my plans to continue a research program based at McMaster and to use the reactor there for training students and for preliminary work on experiments to be carried out at Chalk River. This arrangement was I think very successful all through the 1960s and early ’70s and indeed has been carried on by others since that time. At McMaster a talented group of students put together a neutron diffractometer and a triple-axis instrument and these were available from 1965 on – and indeed are still in use. For the first years we used existing equipment at Chalk River but about 1971 we installed our own spectrometer at NRU and the smaller group now working with me used it (as did others) until I completely left neutron scattering about 1979.

Deep River was also good to us. Five of our six children were born in Deep River Hospital. (Gordon Peter, Ian Bertram, James Christopher, Alice Elizabeth and Charles Leslie.) Our contacts with friends made then have remained deep. But there was one matter for distress – in babyhood Jamie developed hyperactive and autistic behaviour and in 1961 he was placed in Smith Falls Hospital School where he remained until, somewhat improved, we brought him home to Ancaster in 1967. He was sent to special schools in Hamilton; since then he has worked in a sheltered workshop. Of late years he has lived with other afflicted persons in a supervised apartment. Our other five children have all gone on to successful careers; Charles, a molecular biologist, is the only scientist among them. We now have eight grandchildren in four families.

At McMaster I lived the normal life of a Professor of Physics. Each year I usually taught two courses (mostly Solid State Physics, Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics) and carried out the other duties required of me. Eleven people won wheir Ph.D. degrees under my supervision: S.H. Chen, J.M. Rowe, E.C. Svensson, S.C. Ng, A.P. Miller, E.D. Hallman, J.R.D. Copley, A.P. Roy, W.A. Kamitakahara, H.C. Teh, A. Larose. About half of them found their careers in neutron scattering. The research of the group consisted of studies of the phonons in crystals and their temperature behaviour, especially in single crystals of metallic alloys. There were also several Master’s projects, one of which should be mentioned: the highly quantitative study by R.R. Dymond of the reflective behaviour of maltreated copper monochromators. The contributions of several other men should be mentioned, including G.A. DeWit, William Scott, James Couper, E. Roger Cowley, A.K. Pant, Jake Vanderwal and David Macdonald.

But my greatest debt is to my wife of 46 years and my family, whose support and encouragement were indispensable and total. And following this, my colleagues and I owe gratitude to the technologists who engineered and maintained the reactors which provided the neutrons employed in the work – and to Don Hurst who introduced me to the subject – and to the National Research Council of Canada, who supported the program at McMaster over many years – and, finally, to the people of Canada, who supported all these and us.

From 1960 on I suffered, at intervals of a few years, serious health problems of several varieties. These were kept under control by our medical allies and by the support of Dorie and our families. My work was not affected much in formal ways though undoubtedly some aspects did suffer. Throughout my career my father-in-law (Sidney L. Miller) maintained a cottage on Balsam Lake, north of Toronto; this was a considerable blessing for all of us. In addition we did a little camping from time to time, until I developed a bad back. And music – consert, opera, records – have always been part of our life.

During the 1970s I gradually realigned my intellectual interests. One avenue I explored was what might loosely be termed “philosophy of physics”. Another (intersecting) route was concerned with energy supply and the economics and ethics thereof. And there were others. In my explorations I entertained the hope that I would find some interesting niche in which to work. But I also realized the extreme importance of reaching general points of view, if this were at all possible. In this quest I struggled with new descriptions of the furniture of the world. Not much of what I sought was found and not much of that was made public – though I did give some seminars and some talks to service clubs and the like. Perhaps the new impetus to action, given by the amazing event of the Nobel Prize and its accompaniments, will move me on to produce something more well-defined.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1994, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1995

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.


Bertram N. Brockhouse died on October 13, 2003.


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1994

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