University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Meso-science and modernism: work at the Royal Society Mond Laboratory, 1933–1972

Meso-science and modernism: work at the Royal Society Mond Laboratory, 1933–1972

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In February 1933 the great and good of Cambridge physics gathered for the opening of the Royal Society Mond Laboratory, an ‘ultra-modern’ building in which, as Ernest Rutherford was at pains to point out, the atom would definitely not be split. But soon enough even the low-temperature work that the Mond was made for was scuppered by an international scandal: in 1934 Piotr Kapitza, the head of the lab, was detained by the Soviets and Rutherford had to fight to keep science and politics apart. This story is well known, but the Mond itself tends to get lost in the telling. So the first part of my talk consists in a close reading of the building: the site, the training of the architect and the nature of the work done there are key to its striking form, and its distinctive place in inter-war physics. My argument here, which has consequences for notions of scientific heritage and material culture, is that the Mond was itself a scientific instrument – all of its parts working together for the execution of a single experimental programme. After Kapitza left, the function of the building became ambiguous, yet through the work of two generations of scientists the Mond remained important as a site for experiment and also for the planning of research. The second half of my talk is taken up with this period. Here questions of scale become important, and I pursue two lines of inquiry: first, I describe the Mond as an intermediary stage in the development of Big Science; second, I show that it has a key role in the history of ‘meso-scale physics’ – a role that has much to do with the nature of the building and its (literal) place in the Cavendish Laboratory.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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