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Joseph John Thomson was born on December 18 1856 near Manchester England His father died when JJ was only sixteen The young Thomson attended Owens College in Manchester where his professor of mathematics encouraged him to apply for a scholarship at Trinity College one of the most prestigious of the colleges at Cambridge University Thomson won the scholarship and in 1880 finished second in his class in the grueling graduation examination in mathematics Trinity gave him a fellowship and he stayed on there trying to craft mathematical models that would reveal the nature of atoms and electromagnetic forces One hundred years ago amidst glowing glass tubes and the hum of electricity the British physicist JJ Thomson went venturing into the interior of the atom At the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University Thomson was experimenting with currents of electricity inside empty glass tubes He was investigating a long-standing puzzle known as cathode rays His experiments prompted him to make a bold proposal these mysterious rays are streams of particles much smaller than atoms they are in fact minuscule pieces of atoms He called these particles corpuscles and suggested that they might make up all of the matter in atoms It was startling to imagine a particle residing inside the atom--most people thought that the atom was indivisible the most fundamental unit of matter Thomsons speculation was not explicitly supported by his experiments It took more experimental work by Thomson and others to sort out the confusion The atom is now known to contain other particles as well Yet Thomsons bold suggestion that cathode rays were material constituents of atoms turned out to be correct The rays are made up of electrons very small negatively charged particles that are indeed fundamental parts of every atom Modern ideas and technologies based on the electron leading to television and the computer and much else evolved through many difficult steps Thomsons careful experiments and adventurous hypotheses were followed by
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