NEVILL MOTT | Extensive series of letters to Yvonne Cauchois, 1948-96

Lot Closed

December 8, 02:56 PM GMT


15,000 - 20,000 GBP

Lot Details



Series of about 750 autograph letters signed ("Nevill", "N.", "N.M."), to Yvette Cauchois ("Yvette", "Y")

also 48 postcards, 6 greeting cards, and 35 telegrams, PROVIDING A RICHLY DETAILED PORTRAIT OF A NOBEL-PRIZE WINNING SCIENTIST, WRITING TO ANOTHER EMINENT PHYSICIST, on his scientific work, especially relating to semi-conductors, scientific administration, personal life, and their intense relationship, some letters with graphs and diagrams, Bristol, Cambridge, and elsewhere, in English and French, the majority with envelopes, 29 December 1948 to 5 January 1996, with an c.100 letters present only in photocopy form, also a small number of retained drafts, copies, and unsent letters by Cauchois, one letter by Mott's wife, a typescript lecture given at Great St Mary's, Cambridge, and a small number of other typescripts and other scientific material, and a small number of letters relating to Mott after his death, the collection housed in 9 file folders with the majority of letters arranged in chronological order (additional and undated letters comprising the final one and a half folders)

Professor Sir Nevill Francis Mott (1905-96) was one of the foremost physicists of his generation. In 1977 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for his "fundamental theoretical investigations of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems". His important discoveries relating to amorphous semiconductors helped to usher in the era of cheap electronics, but he was also a great facilitator - encouraging international co-operation, nurturing research centres, and encouraging collaboration between experimenters and theoretical physicists.

Yvette Cauchois (1908-99) was also a highly eminent physicist. A professor at the Sorbonne whose research focused on X-Ray spectroscopy and X-Ray optics, she eventually became the second woman - after Marie Curie - to be President of the French Society for Physical Chemistry.

This correspondence begins on 29 December 1948, when Mott replies to a letter by Cauchois detailing of results of experiments on X-ray spectrometry of metals: "What you say about Pd and Sandstroms results is most interesting. Obviously the key expt. is now to do nickel. Though I am convinced that you will get a white line of L2 and L3! Obviously in Pt the spin and orbital motion remain coupled, and perhaps in Pd too. The whole thing is most interesting. I have been trying to write up a general account of all the Ni Pd Pt story [...] into which all this X-ray fits." Mott travelled to Paris at her invitation to give a lecture the following June, and during this visit they fell in love; as he put it, in characteristic scientific language: "I thought perhaps your friendship for me was not entirely that desire of the experimentalist for a theory - that sentiment I know oh so well..." (June 1949) These letters contain an extraordinary combination of scientific collaboration and deeply personal revelations; ranging from commiseration over "Your nightmare about nickel!" (20 June 1950) and discussion (often with diagrams) of experiments with metal alloys, to intense discussion about his feelings and admissions of the strain his daughter's illness had placed on his marriage. The initial intensity of the relationship lasted about eighteen months; by March 1951 he is able to demarcate the limits of their relationship ("...I have to say absolutely clearly that I'm not willing to wreck my marriage [...] I've wanted to keep you in my life and to keep my marriage. Was that bad of me? I never felt it wrong, but I see now the unhappiness I've made..."). The two continued to correspond regularly and intimately throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. The letters dwindle thereafter, and there are periods when they dry up entirely, but the two continued a correspondence until shortly before Mott's death in 1996.  

There is much in these letters that help to understand Mott as an individual, such as how the horrors of the Second World War - which of course Cauchois had experienced under Occupation - influenced both his encouragement of European co-operation and opposition to Nuclear weapons ("...Horrible picture of the Germans killing the botanist who made the rare plants grow. This nightmare of Europe. I saw a lot of it in Gottingen, a man who had been 4 years in a Siberian mine, another who was in the big Dresden raid and told me all about it over a glass of wine...", [August 1949]). Scientific collaboration characterised their relationship throughout - as, for example, we see in a series of letters from the early 1960s on the absorption of nickel. The height of their correspondence in the 1950s was also a crucial moment in Mott's professional career, and the letters provide much detail about his move from Bristol to Cambridge ("...I have just accepted the Cavendish - with almost indecent haste...", 3 December 1953) and the challenges of taking up the mastership of his college towards the end of the decade. Mott was an able administrator, and his ten-page letter on his aims for Cambridge's prestigious Cavendish Laboratory, provides a fascinating and detailed vision of British science at a crossroads: "...At present they all want to do nuclear research (the experimental men) & the theorists want to field theory of the most abstract kind. I propose to give a course on solid state physics in the main teaching course to try and change the minds of a few..." (3 August 1955)

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