Physics Songs from the Cavendish Laboratory

These songs were sung in the early 1900s by the faculty and students of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University after their annual dinners.

In A History of the Cavendish Laboratory, Sir J. J. Thomson writes, "By 1898 the number of research students had increased so much that they decided to celebrate the event by a dinner, and the first of what has proved to be an uninterrupted series of such gatherings was held in December, at a restaurant in Sidney Street. I remember that during the songs after dinner, the Proctors came to enquire what the proceedings were about; they did not, however, penetrate to the room where we were dining, being, I suppose, impressed and I have no doubt, mystified by the assurance of the landlord that it was a scientific gathering of research students."

Brian Cathcart describes these annual dinners in his book, The Fly in the Cathedral: "These were raucous affairs held close to Christmas, at which ribald toasts were proposed and irreverent songs sung about the personalities of the lab. Peter Kapitza described one such evening: You could do anything you liked at the table - squeal, yell, and so on - the general picture was rather wild and quite unique. After the toasts everyone stood on their chairs, crossed arms and sang a song recalling old friends and so on. It was very funny to see such world famous luminaries as J.J. Thomson and Rutherford standing on their chairs and singing at the top of their voices. Finally we sang 'God Save the King' and at midnight we broke up."

The songs were collected by Prof. John Satterly (1879-1963), of the University of Toronto.
Learn more about Prof. Satterly.

Deepest thanks to Prof. Arthur R. Quinton of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for preserving this collection over the years and for sending it for posting here.

Many thanks to Gillian Wotherspoon, Chief Library Assistant at the Rayleigh Library of the Cavendish lab for research on the history of the annual dinners.

History of the Cavendish Laboratory

 


Sir J. J. Thomson was the Cavendish Professor of Physics when many of these songs were written. He wrote a verse for one of the songs, and several of the others are about him. He discovered the electron, and won the Nobel prize in 1906.

So far, we have posted only one song (below). Over the coming months, all eleven others will be posted.

"hv" by Prof. Gilbert Stead

 

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Background image: The Cavendish Crocodile. Click here for an explanation, and further proof that physicists have a highly developed sense of humor!

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