The publications, research notebooks and personal correspondence of C.T.R. Wilson are reviewed to understand his thinking on the idea of electron runaway in thunderclouds. The expansion cloud chamber, developed and refined over a period of nearly fifty years, is centrally important. Wilson's habit of research is characterized by a pattern of alternating between laboratory work with the cloud chamber and field observations of thunderclouds and the global electrical circuit. The evidence that the ionization tracks of electrons in the cloud chamber straightened with increasing energy was key to the idea of electron runaway, published in 1925. Despite numerous negative results by Wilson's colleagues Schonland, Halliday and others in searching for energetic particles in the vicinity of thunderclouds, Wilson supported the idea from its inception to his final publication in 1956. Wilson's notebooks indicate a conceptual awareness of runaway breakdown in thunderclouds 60 years in advance of contemporary theoretical publications. Definitive observational results on runaway breakdown in contemporary research were likely delayed for 60 years as a result of the unfortunate negative experimental results with inadequate equipment.
Journal of Geophysical Research (Space Physics)
- Pub Date:
- August 2010
- Atmospheric Processes: Atmospheric electricity;
- Atmospheric Processes: Lightning;
- Planetary Sciences: Solid Surface Planets: Interactions with particles and fields;
- Atmospheric Composition and Structure: Cloud physics and chemistry