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Scientists of Wales: Ezer Griffiths

(March 04, 2016)


Ezer Griffiths (1888-1962)

 Ezer Griffiths

About nine years ago a politician (Lord Haskins) suggested that people who like to eat lamb and are concerned about the environment should buy New Zealand lamb. The comments were based on a report from academics, who costed each element in meat production in non-monetary units, such as, ton of carbon dioxide emission and food-mile. They claimed that British lamb was four times more costly, largely because New Zealand lamb arrived here frozen in ships, not in planes. Naturally, Welsh farmers offered a stern response.

This case exemplifies the sort of discussion to which everyone should contribute. We all share responsibility for the environment, but it is difficult to analyse and quantify fairly. In reading about frozen New Zealand lamb, I recalled learning about a distinguished Welsh scientist, who contributed richly to our understanding of heat processes and refrigeration.

Ezer Griffiths was born (25 November 1888) in Aberdare, one of the nine children of Abraham Lincol Griffiths (what a name!) and his wife Ann; Ezer was the eldest of six sons. He was educated in local schools, then went to the university in Cardiff, graduating in physics and doing research. In 1915 he was appointed to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, Middlesex. The NPL was the foremost establishment for safeguarding standards in defining units of measurement across a range of academic disciplines and commercial usage. Ezer spent the whole of his professional life here, until 1953. He was elected F.R.S. in 1926 and O.B.E. in 1950. He died on the 14th of February 1962.

The initial big influence on him was Principal E H Griffiths in Cardiff. With him Ezer embarked upon the study of the physics of heat energy, the theme of his research thereafter. This was the period of excitement among physicists concerning measurements of specific heats of substances at low temperatures. The Griffiths collaboration was highly influential in testing theories on the basis of carefully designed experiments and accurate measurements.

He was author of about 100 papers and several articles to applied physics journals on calorimetry, thermocouples and thermometers. He published two books on aspects of measuring temperatures and one on the basic principles of refrigeration.

Although his work was predominantly in Teddington, he was often asked to offer advice to external organisations on specific matters of concern to them. He devised the method of the buried sphere to measure the thermal resistivity of soils, in association with studies to estimate the loss of heat from buried electric cables. He adapted studies on the evaporation of water from surfaces to an understanding of cloud trails (contrails) created by aeroplanes; these experiments were conducted at 35,000 feet. He researched the living conditions of tank personnel in the Libyan desert in the Second World War; it became evident that putting a thin layer of heat-insulating material on the inner surface of the tank secured substantial improvements.

Griffiths became an authority on heat insulation and transfer. By 1920 there were numerous examples of cold-storage on land, but not on ships. In 1923 he studied problems of keeping apples fresh in ships and in 1930 he resolved the same issues with lamb.

A tribute to him in Biological Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society states, " … It is thus hardly too much to say that the provision of the excellent 'Canterbury lamb' in our butchers’ shops was largely due to Griffiths".

In this context, the bother between Welsh farmers and Lord Haskins is a little ironic.

The life and work of Ezer Griffiths are examples of 'backroom' science, which does not attract the attention of the media, nothing like the Higgs Boson or the recent attention given to gravitational waves or the exploits of the scientists on the International Space Station. Even so, what about the science of the suits worn by the astronauts?

Neville Evans, March 2016

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

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