Lab Lib

M.F. Perutz

  • Rutherford: Simple Genius by David Wilson
    Hodder, 639 pp, £14.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 340 23805 4

Rutherford was one of my early heroes, and Wilson’s biography of this great and lovable man has enlivened and enlarged, rather than debunked, my youthful image. Rutherford was the man who created the atomic age: a farmer’s boy from New Zealand whose brilliance and Herculean energy brought him the Presidency of the Royal Society, a peerage, and honours from all over the world. Wilson goes a long way to tracing the mental paths and the passionate curiosity that led Rutherford to his great discoveries. He paints a picture of a towering, boisterous, stunningly able, outgoing, cheerful, irascible, good-natured, generous and compassionate man who delights above all in the pursuit of experimental physics and feels sorry ‘for the poor chaps who haven’t got labs to work in’.

Supported by that legacy of Prince Albert’s far-sighted interest in science, an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship, Rutherford arrived in Cambridge in September 1895, only a few months before Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays and Becquerel’s of radioactivity ushered in a revolution in physics. He found college men ‘very capable, especially in conversation. It’s a pity so many of them fossilise.’ He soon realised that only by scientific success could he make himself socially acceptable and financially viable. ‘If one gets a man like J.J.’ – J.J. Thomson, then Cavendish Professor of Physics – ‘to back one up,’ he wrote to his fiancée in New Zealand, ‘one is pretty safe to get any position.’ Little did he know Cambridge! Three years later, when his scholarship expired, he applied for the chair in physics at McGill University in Montreal, hoping ‘that this may make J.J. act in respect of getting me something to do in Cambridge. I will probably go in for a fellowship this year ...’ In fact nothing materialised, and most of Rutherford’s great discoveries were made at Montreal and later Manchester. He returned to Cambridge in 1920 as J.J. Thomson’s successor to the Cavendish chair, but only after protracted negotiations, because the University authorities considered the honour of a Cambridge professorship worth a substantial drop in salary. According to Rutherford, ‘the chief trouble is the literary fraternity which is of late becoming more and more persistent in principle against the greater share for scientific purposes.’ Plus ça change ...

I first saw Rutherford in the autumn of 1937, at a seminar given by his friend Niels Bohr, the great Danish theoretician. Bohr proposed a liquid-drop model of the atomic nucleus which appeared to sweep away one of the problems which Rutherford had been trying to solve since his arrival at Cambridge. If the nucleus was merely a fluid drop composed of protons and neutrons, then it had no fixed structure, and many of Rutherford’s experiments designed to solve that structure had been pointless. Young scientists will be relieved to learn from this book that even Rutherford did some ‘damn silly’ experiments at times. At the seminar I was overawed by the giants of physics and sat on one of the back benches, but another graduate student, Fred (now Sir Frederick) Dainton, overheard Rutherford saying to Bohr after the lecture: ‘If mass disappears, energy will appear.’ Here and in several other places Wilson demolishes the myth that Rutherford failed to foresee the possibility that nuclear physics might have practical applications. He died in 1937, a year before one of his former German pupils discovered uranium fission. He therefore did not live to witness the terrifying implications of the atomic age and maintained his buoyant faith in the value of physics to the end.

‘This country is judged,’ he said in a speech in 1921, ‘not by the size of its exports or its fleet, but by its contribution to knowledge.’ He failed to foresee that shrinking exports would also throttle the funds needed for the pursuit of knowledge. I was surprised to learn that in 1915 it was accepted wisdom that the French invented, while the Germans and British turned their inventions to profit: many of my contemporaries in the Cavendish had to go to America in order to find someone interested in turning their inventions to profit. I wonder what killed the British spirit of enterprise.

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