Quotes By and About Rutherford
Quotes by, and about, Rutherford abound.
But they alter with time and country, and are often used out of context in a way never initially intended.
If only in the 1970s to 90s, when I was reading original material on Rutherford and talking to people who
knew him, I had had in mind this website and page then I would have noted down in one place the earliest versions of
all Rutherford quotations, plus their source(s). Instead they are scattered over 10 notebooks and 2 filing
cabinets of material.
To date I have some 20 pages of quotes and sources drafted and these will be uploaded as I get time
and complete the research for sources.
If anyone can supply other quotes or earlier references to those below, please contact me.
john.campbell (at] canterbury.ac.nz.
“It is given to but few men to achieve immortality, still less to achieve Olympian rank, during their
own lifetime. Lord Rutherford achieved both. In a generation that witnessed one of the greatest
revolutions in the entire history of science he was universally acknowledged as the leading explorer
of the vast infinitely complex universe within the atom, a universe that he was first to penetrate.”
New York Times, 20th Oct 1937.
Rutherford died at 9.35pm (UK time) the night before. The news of Rutherford's death was on the front
page. "LORD RUTHERFORD, PHYSICIST, IS DEAD".
The obituary, which covered 3 columns of p18, was written by William L. Laurence, the New York Times'
science writer who co-founded the National Association of Science Writers in 1934 and was the
co-winner of the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Reporting.
“I learned a great deal from Rutherford - not physics but how to do physics.”
Peter Kapitza to Niels Bohr. 19th Oct 1937.
Kapitza, who had been refused an exit visa from Russia since 1934, wrote to Bohr
following Rutherford's death on 19th Oct 1937, "... All these years I lived with the hope that I
shall see him again and now this hope is gone. ... I loved Rutherford ... I learned a great deal
from Rutherford - not physics but how to do physics."
“The world mourns the death of a great scientist, but we have lost our friend, our counsellor,
our staff and our leader.”
James Chadwick 1937.
(Bowden’s Erskine Lecture, University of Canterbury, 15th Mar 1979. Quotes Chadwick’s tribute to R.)
“Rutherford was ever the happy warrior – happy in his work, happy in its outcome, and happy
in its human contacts.”
Sir James Jeans, 2nd Jan 1938.
Rutherford had been appointed joint president for the 1938 joint meeting of the BAAS/Indian AAS.
Unfortunately he died 5 weeks before his ship was due to sail to India. Jeans stepped into the position,
read Rutherford's report, and made the above statement as part of his eulogy of Rutherford.
“I never can forget 'ee; for you was a good man and did good things.”
James Chadwick 1973.
James Chadwick wrote the Foreword to Mark Oliphant’s 1973 book “Rutherford Recollections
of the Cambridge Days.”
He finished with a relevant quote from the end of Thomas Hardy’s book “The Woodlanders.”
“We've got a rabbit here from the Antipodes, and he's burrowing mighty deeply.”
Andrew Balfour, Advanced Student, Cambridge University.
Reported in the Herald (Montreal) 3rd Dec 1904 on the occasion of Rutherford being given
the Royal Society's Rumford Medal. In the article Balfour was said to have written this when Rutherford
was at Cambridge in 1895-8. Balfour, a medical doctor from Edinburgh, entered Cauis College, Cambridge,
as an advanced student on Oct 1st 1896, so the quote presumably comes from after this date. In 1904
Balfour was the director of the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratory in Khartoum. (see A Alumni
Cantabrigienses: a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of office at the
University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900, Compiled by John Venn and J.A. Venn, Part II vol. 1.)
“Here was the rarest and most refreshing spectacle - the pure ardour of the chase, a man
quite possessed by a noble work and altogether happy in it.”
John McNaughton, Professor of Classics, McGill University, 1904.
In February 1904 McNaughton gave the Annual University Lecture on A Modest Plea for the
Retention in Our Educational System of Some Tincture of Letters. McGill was introducing Railway
Engineering into the academic fold "The bankers may follow - who knows where the process will stop?"
A few weeks earlier McNaughton had attended a lecture Rutherford had given to the Physical Society.
McNaughton's lecture was published in the McGill Magazine, Apr 1904, p17-34. The quote is on p18.
“Few men could have made more friends, or lost fewer, than he did.”
Harold Robinson, 1942.
Harold Robinson reminiscing about Ernest Rutherford during the first Rutherford Memorial
Lecture of the Physical Society, 6th Nov 1942.
“He was a man who never did dirty tricks.”
A. S. Russell, 1950.
A. S. Russell stated this during his Rutherford Memorial Lecture, 8 Dec 1950.
In Awe of Rutherford
“What would Rutherford do?”
P. M. S. Blackett, in opening his Rutherford Memorial Lecture of 26 Nov 1954.
"Anyone like myself who had the good luck to come under the direct influence of Rutherford is apt,
when faced with some tricky problem in the tactics or strategy of scientific research, to ask himself
"what would Rutherford have done?" "
“After I heard Rutherford explaining something I thought "That is perfectly simple and perfectly obvious;
why on earth didn't I think of it myself?”
Vivian Lord Bowden, 1979.
Vivian Lord Bowden was a graduate student under Rutherford, from 1931-1934.
During an Erskine Lecture of 15th Mar 1979 at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, Lord Bowden attributed
Ernest Rutherford's greatness to his inherent simplicity. Thinking back to his own time as a physics student in
Cambridge he recalled “There were some very distinguished theoretical physicists in the Cavendish in my time, and
I often heard them talking. I always thought that these men were extraordinarily brilliant; I could understand
only part of what they were saying and I could never imagine that I could contribute to their ideas in any way at
all. But after I heard Rutherford explaining something I thought 'That is perfectly simple and perfectly obvious;
why on earth didn't I think of it myself?' "
“Rutherford’s greatest gift was surely his insight into scientific problems.”
A. S. Russell, Rutherford Memorial Lecture, 8 Dec 1950.
“Rutherford’s other great gift was to design experiments that asked of Nature the most
A. S. Russell, Rutherford Memorial Lecture, 8 Dec 1950.
"His other great gift was to design experiments that asked of Nature the most pertinent
questions and then to brood for long over the answers."
“Whose afraid of the big bad wolf.”
Music played at the 1934 Cavendish Dinner as Rutherford takes the chair.
Reproduced in “Cockcroft and the Atom”, G. Hartcup and T. Allibone, Adam Hilger, 1984, p71.
“The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord”.
R. W. Wood 1930.
R W Wood came to Cambridge in 1929 to recruit one of three associates to spend a year at Johns Hopkins University to
establish work in radioactivity. He chose Norman Feather as one, who hence was at Johns Hopkins for the year 1929.
Whilst there he learned that the Kelly Hospital used radon tubes for treating cancers then discarded the tubes.
He acquired a large number of these discarded tubes as they were a good source of polonium, a rare and expensive
element and a good source of high energy alpha particles. Alphas from these sources were used by Chadwick to discover
the neutron in 1932. Feather returned to Cambridge and a Trinity Fellowship in 1930. On his departure from Johns
Hopkins, R. W. Wood saw him off at the railway station. Of Feather’s visit, Wood stated, “The Lord hath given and
the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” (AIP Interview 4599 of Feather, Feb 25th 1971.)
Quotes by Rutherford
“I have always been very proud of the fact that I am a New Zealander.”
Sir Ernest Rutherford, 1925.
Sir Ernest Rutherford stated this during a conversazione thrown in his honour by Auckland
University College, the Auckland Institute, the Medical Association, and the Society of Civil Engineers,
Auckland, New Zealand, 30th Sept 1925. Reported in The New Zealand Herald 1st Oct 1925 p10g. "He touched
humorously on the strenuous effort of an Australian journalist to make him an Australian." (Rutherford
had been in Australia on a lecture tour.) He made a similar statement during his official reception in
Wellington on 27th Oct 1925 (Dominion 28th Oct 1925).
“There is only one person who can take away one's good name, and that is oneself!”
Ernest Rutherford 1911, as recalled by Neils Bohr 1961.
Bohr wrote an article (Proceedings of the Physical Society, v78 p1084 1961) following his 1958
Physical Society Rutherford Memorial Lecture which he gave without notes. "At the same time, with his whole
independent attitude, he had only little respect for authority and could not stand what he called "pompous talk".
On such occasions he could even sometimes speak in a boyish way about venerable colleagues, but he never
permitted himself to enter into personal controversies, and he used to say: "There is only one person who
can take away one's good name, and that is oneself!"
“I learnt more of research methods in those first investigations under somewhat difficult
conditions than in any work I have done since.”
Ernest Rutherford 1909.
Rutherford reminiscing about his early researches in New Zealand, in a letter to the Board of
Governors of Canterbury College, 21st Jan 1909, after the Board had congratulated him on his Nobel Prize.
“If you can't explain to the charwoman scrubbing your laboratory floor what you are doing, you don't
know what you are doing.”
Lord Ritchie-Calder recollection, 1982.
Rutherford's reasonableness in taking advice is illustrated by his encounter with a young journalist
Peter Ritchie-Calder. While interviewing Ern on the latest breakthrough in science Ritchie-Calder could not follow
his description and scientific jargon so asked Rutherford if he would explain it in simple language.
Rutherford took umbrage, whereupon Ritchie-Calder tossed his shorthand notebook over to the great man and asked,
“Can you read that?”
“No of course not”, replied an irritated Rutherford.
“Nor can my readers,'' said the young reporter. “I have a duty to translate that shorthand
into language they can understand - and I suggest, Sir, that if your discovery affects the life of a single human
being you have a similar duty to me.” Rutherford took the point.
Later he sent Ritchie-Calder an advanced copy of a talk he had prepared for a distinguished scientific audience
and asked if he had made his message clear enough. He had. During the talk Rutherford departed from the text to admonish
scientists. “If you can't explain to the charwoman scrubbing your laboratory floor what you are doing, you don't
know what you are doing”.
(The Guardian, 14 Feb 1982 p3 Letters to the editor, Ronald Harker.) Ronald had
recounted the story of Rutherford and Richie-Calder when reviewing a book for the Christian Science Monitor. On its publication,
Richie Calder wrote to Harker how delighted he was that he remembered his interaction with Rutherford so long ago and told him
the sequel of Rutherford admonishing the scientists.
“We haven't the money, so we've got to think.”
Attributed to Rutherford by R. V. Jones, Brunel Lecture, Brunel College of Technology, London, 14th Feb 1962.
His lecture is printed in Bulletin v13 p102a 1962. (April issue). Note. The Bulletin of the Institute of
Physics and the Physical Society had undergone a subtle name change in 1961 (the “of” was dropped) so my university’s
library’s catalogue stated it ceased publication in 1961, which made this hard to find.
R V Jones was an interesting character. He did his PhD at Oxford and in 1936 entered the Air Ministry,
firstly to apply the early infrared detectors to detecting aircraft engines, but spent the war as a scientific adviser.
His book "Most Secret War" is one of my favourites. Rutherford had died in 1937 so I doubt R V Jones ever spoke to him
And hence this is likely a second-hand reminisce. From early war time, Jones was firm friends with Phillip Dee, who had
started his PhD in Rutherford's lab in 1925. (See also “So you recognise the hand-writing?”)
There are several variations on this quotation, usually given un-attributed.
“We don’t have much money therefore we must think.”
Used by the Rutherford Den in the 2000s. This has Rutherford’s ring to it. A short version was used by Westpac
Bank in New Zealand as part of its advertising campaign in the early 2000s(?). It had used a series of quotes connected
to finance by various well-known New Zealanders.
“Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking.”
This doesn’t have the ring of Rutherford to me. He didn’t “run out of money”, he probably didn’t
have the money at the time for a particular experiment. E.g. he obtained the money when needed for large experiments such as Moseley’s
X-ray work, Kapitza’s magnetic work, and Cockcroft and Walton’s linear particle accelerator.
Version such as these are likely to be misused by frugal governments and university managements, to science's detriment.
“Every care should be taken to make reservations and keep them protected wherever it is possible.”
Ernest Rutherford, 1st Nov 1925.
Reported in the Lyttelton Times 2nd Nov 1925. He was commenting on the New Zealand government continuing to preserve
some of the most scenic parts of New Zealand. "New Zealand has a great variety of scenery, and this is a very great asset which
will probably become of ever-increasing importance in the future."
“Men of science are not dependent on the ideas of a single man, but on the combined wisdom of
thousands of men.”
Paraphrased from that said by Rutherford as recalled by A. S. Russell, Rutherford Memorial Lecture, 8th Dec 1950.
"Men of science are not dependent on the ideas of a single man, but on the combined wisdom of thousands of men, all
thinking about the same problem, and each doing his part in adding the great structure of knowledge going up."
But Russell continued "But is it altogether true of a fundamental science such as physics? Surely it is nearer the mark to
say the more fundamental the science the greater is the need of the big advances which only great men can make."
Russell was at Manchester from 1907-19.
“I am always a believer in simplicity, being a simple person myself.”
Ernest Rutherford, Goettingen, 14th Dec 1931.
Rutherford was delivering a lecture during the celebrations to mark the bicentennial of the founding of the
Royal Society of Gőttingen by the British King George II. During the talk Rutherford stated that he believed the atom had
to be a simple thing. The hall, which seated 400 people, was filled 15 minutes before time and some 300 later arrivals
were reluctantly turned away. Professor Pohl recorded Rutherford's talk on his work on nine small acetate discs which
were later transcribed onto nine 74rpm records. (See Rutherford Artifacts in Miscellaneous.)
“For Mike's sake, Soddy, don't call it transmutation. They'll have our heads off as alchemists.”
Frederick Soddy, c1901 but a post-1953 reminiscence.
Rutherford to Frederick Soddy, as recalled by Soddy after 1953 in the only biography written about Soddy
(The Life Story of Frederick Soddy, Muriel Howorth, New World Publications, 1958. The triple-headed title
starts with Pioneer Research on the Atom.)
Soddy's fuller recollection, as recorded by Howorth, is stated on p83. "I remember quite well standing
there transfixed as though stunned by the colossal import of the thing and blurted out - or so it seemed at the time:
"Rutherford, this is transmutation: the thorium is disintegrating and transmuting itself into an argon gas."
The words seemed to flash through me as if from some outside source.
Rutherford shouted to me, in his breezy manner, "For Mike's sake Soddy, don't call it transmutation.
They'll have our heads off as alchemists. You know what they are." "
As a reminiscence 50 years after the event the essence may be correct but the exact wording may not be.
Howorth met Soddy in 1953, when he was 76 years old and rather embittered. He died in 1956. She worked mainly through
Soddy's own archives so thought an injustice had been done to Soddy. This biography is rather self-serving, with the
main credit for transmutation being given to Soddy, who worked with Rutherford at McGill between northern autumn 1901
and February 1903. (Howorth set up the Atomic Garden Society in 1959, whereby seeds and plants were irradiated with
gamma rays to attempt to induce beneficial mutants.)
It shouldn't be forgotten that by May 1899 Rutherford and Owens had reported the first
evidence of thorium emanation (though they didn't know what it was at that stage). By September 1899
Rutherford wrote of a (gaseous?) radioactive substance emitted by thorium compounds and gave the
curves of radioactive growth and decay for it (half-life 60 seconds), called it thorium emanation
and proposed diffusion experiments to determine the molecular weight of the emanation. By Nov 1899
he could write of all thorium compounds producing radioactivity in substances near them with a universal
half-life of 11 hours. In May of 1901 Rutherford and Harriet Brooks, following Curie's reporting a new
gas from radium, reported their diffusion experiments A New Gas from Radium concluding that "the emanation
is in reality a heavy radioactive vapour or gas". These were all reported before Soddy joined in the research.
Nor should it be forgotten that at the McGill Science Society' meeting of March 28th 1901,
the topic, proposed by Rutherford to demolish the chemists, was The existence of bodies smaller than atoms.
The chemists' champion, Soddy, entitled his contribution Chemical Evidence for the Indivisibility of Atoms
and castigated Rutherford and Thomson for their claims. It is likely that it was after this meeting that
Rutherford invited Soddy to join his research. Soddy was at McGill by chance, after going to Canada hoping
to get a professor's job at Toronto and being temporarily employed as a demonstrator at McGill from 1900
and planning to give lectures on gas analysis. Rutherford had earlier invited a friend, Walker in the
chemistry department, to join his research but Walker declined as he was an organic chemist.
Rutherford was wise to avoid the term alchemy. The previous claimant to be successful,
James Price, a Fellow of the Royal Society, had claimed he could turn mercury into gold and silver.
In 1783 three Fellows of the Society investigated Price who, on it being discovered that his crucible
had a false bottom, drank Prussic acid and fell down dead before them.
Following his later isotope work, Soddy was first proposed for a Nobel Prize in Chemistry
in 1918 by Rutherford and H. Schlenk (awarded to Haber), and again, but this time successfully, in 1921
by Rutherford. It was awarded as the Reserved Prize in 1922.
“For Mike's sake, Soddy, don't call it transmutation. They'll have our heads off as alchemists.”
Repeated correctly in Lawrence Badash, Scientific American, August 1966 p91.
“For Mike's sake Soddy, don't call it transmutation. They'll have our heads off as alchemists.”
Repeated from these sources in Rutherford Scientist Supreme John Campbell, AA Publications, 1999
p249 and p265, but with a comma missing. Gulp.
“They'll cut off our heads as if we were alchemists!“
The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table's Shadow Side. By Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa, Mary Virginia. OUP, 2015, p260.
“It is now possible by modern methods to produce exceedingly minute quantities of gold, but only
by the transmutation of an even more costly element, platinum.”
Ernest Rutherford, 1936.
Ernest Rutherford gave the Sidgwick Memorial Lecture at Newnham College, an all female college, on 28th November 1936.
An expanded version of this lecture was published as The Newer Alchemy CUP 1937.
On page 1 and 2 he espouses on ancient alchemy, the hopes to transform cheap metals into gold,
through to its rejection in "modern" transformation. "At the same time these old alchemistic
ideas have persisted in the public mind, and even to this day impostors or deluded men appear
who claim to have a recipe for making gold in quantity by transmutation. These charlatans are
often convincing in their scientific jargon that they disturb for a time the sleep of even our
most hard-headed financiers. We shall see that it is now possible by modern methods to produce
exceedingly minute quantities of gold, but only by the transmutation of an even more costly element,
“We thus see how the progress of modern alchemy will not only add greatly to our knowledge
of the elements, but also of their relative abundance in our universe.”
Ernest Rutherford, 1936.
Ernest Rutherford's closing statement in his Sidgwick Memorial Lecture, 28th November 1936.
An expanded version of this lecture was published as The Newer Alchemy CUP 1937 (p67)
“ I see the possibility of supplying the world with light and power with a nominal expenditure of
energy and with no waste.”
Ernest Rutherford, talk to the Canterbury College Science Society, 12th May 1894.
Rutherford’s first researches at Canterbury College, investigating whether iron was magnetic at
high frequencies, was inspired by Nikola Tesla’s high-frequency, air-cored, step-up transformer. Tesla had
recently achieved world-wide fame through reports of his demonstrations with his Tesla Coil, including holding a discharge
tube near it. The tube glowed, thus demonstrating the transmission of electrical power without using wires.
Tesla proposed that power could thus be transmitted cheaply to poorer countries which had no electrical
During his talk on “Electrical Waves and Oscillations” to Canterbury College Science
Society, 12th May 1894, Rutherford demonstrated Hertz’s and Tesla’s demonstrations and was certainly
paraphrasing Tesla’s comments. Rutherford’s talk was reported in the Lyttelton Times, 28th May 1894.
“Here Mr Rutherford saw the possibility of supplying the world with light and power with a nominal
expenditure of energy and with no waste.”
“He is like the Euclidian Point: he has position without magnitude.”
Ernest Rutherford c1912.
As recalled by A. S. Russell in his Rutherford Memorial Lecture to the Physical Society on the 8th Dec 1950.
“Nothing much to him is there?”
Henry Tizard recalled Ern reporting to him:- "I've just been seeing so-and-so'' -
mentioning a man well-known in public life! Pause - puff on pipe - then “Nothing much to him is there?''
And the fact is there wasn't.
“All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”
Recollected by P. M. S. Blackett in his Rutherford Memorial Lecture of 26 Nov 1954.
Patrick Blackett, in his Rutherford lecture of 25th Nov 1954 stated the quotation as "All science
is either physics or stamp collecting.") This talk was republished in Rutherford at Manchester,
J B Birks (Ed) 1962 p108, which gave the proceedings of the 1961 Rutherford Jubilee held to
commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of R's discovery of atomic nucleus.
Blackett was with Rutherford at Cambridge from 1921 till 1933 so the date isn't pinned down.
Keep in mind that at the time chemistry, biology, botany, and other sciences were still often concerned
with grouping elements of their subject into categories, much like stamp collectors did (e.g. by country,
or topic) so it was a reasonably accurate, if tongue in cheek, statement.
Rutherford in the Laboratory
“None could match him in swearing at apparatus.”
An unnamed assistant to J. J. Thomson, (1911).
The Chairman of the Cavendish Laboratory’s Annual Dinner 1911, when introducing their special guest Ernest Rutherford,
who had been invited because earlier that year he had discovered the nuclear atom, stated that Professor Rutherford held another distinction.
There are three versions of the quotation wording from reminiscences some four decades later all from Niels Bohr.
Bohr, a new graduate whose D. Phil. thesis in Copenhagen had been on "Studies in the Electron Theory of Metal", was partway
into spending an academic year at the Cavendish working with J.J. Thomson, the discoverer of the electron. Bohr was so taken
with Rutherford at this dinner that the following spring he transferred to Manchester to work with Rutherford, placing the
electrons around Rutherford’s nuclear atom and thereby gaining himself a Nobel Prize.
In 1954 Bohr gave the keynote talk "Greater International Cooperation is Needed for Peace and Survival" to the
"Atomic Energy in Industry" conference, New York, October 13-15 1954 where he reminisced: "Already in Cambridge, where I worked
in 1911, I had heard much of Rutherford's genius and vigorous personality, and I remember how an old assistant to Thomson told
that he had seen many young men working in the Cavendish laboratory but nobody who could swear at his apparatus like Rutherford."
In 1958 Bohr gave the Physical Society Rutherford Memorial Lecture without notes. In 1961 he wrote a follow-up article,
Proceedings of the Physical Society, v78 1083-1115 1961, in which he reminisced (p1084): "Among various illustrations of how
intensely he was absorbed in his researches, a laboratory assistant at the Cavendish was reported to have noted that, of all
the eager young physicists who through the years had worked in the famous laboratory, Rutherford was the one who could swear
at his apparatus most forcefully."
His 1966 biography (Niels Bohr: The Man and the Scientist, Ruth Moore, Alfred A Knopf, 1966, reprinted Hodder and
Stoughton, 1967) reported (p36): "…the introducer added that Rutherford held another distinction. Of all the young physicists
who had studied at the Cavendish none could match him in swearing at the apparatus."
My thanks to Felicity Pors of the Niels Bohr Archive. I had asked her if this story had appeared any of Niels'
1911 letters home to his future wife Margrethe Nørlund but it didn’t.
“I am sorry for the poor fellows who haven't got labs to work in.”
Ernest Rutherford, c1912
Reported by Harold Robinson in 1942, during the first Rutherford Memorial Lecture of the Physical Society.
Rutherford and Robinson had spent a fine Saturday afternoon fruitlessly in the lab trying to purify a very dirty
sample of radon, during which Rutherford made a mistake and they ended up with more air in the sample than they
had started with. “Well, it’s a good job I did that, and not you.” As they cleared up the mess and Rutherford
sucked on his pipe, Rutherford stated, “Robinson, you know, I am sorry for the poor fellows who haven't got
labs to work in.”
“I want more things going on in this lab than radioactivity.”
Ernest Rutherford 1924.
It is often stated that Rutherford encouraged research only in radioactivity and the nucleus.
But he never forgot his early work in wireless waves, which included him holding the then record (Cambridge, 22nd Feb 1896)
for the distance over which electric "wireless" signals were detected and being the first to use wireless to signal from station to
moving train. (Canada 13th Oct 1902).
He had encouraged and funded Appleton and Barnett who, on 11th Dec 1924, used radio
signals to measure the height of the ionized layer in the upper atmosphere. Jack Ratcliffe graduated at Cambridge in 1924.
His lecturer in electricity and magnetism, Appleton, had emphasized the wide range of physics connected with electromagnetic
waves. He told Rutherford he wanted to work in that field. Replied Rutherford “Splendid. I want more things
going on in this lab than radioactivity.”
That wording was told to me by Jack Ratcliffe when I interviewed him in Dec 1979/Jan 1980. (NB5/46)
“Wireless research will throw light on the state of the upper atmosphere.”
Ernest Rutherford, 1st Nov 1925,
At the Cavendish Laboratory, Miles Barnett, a New Zealand postgraduate student, had assisted Edward Appleton
on the night of 11th Dec 1924 to measure the 100km height of an ionized layer in the earth’s upper atmosphere.
They had confirmed the Kennelly/Heaviside
theory that an ionized layer must exist in order to account for radio
signals being received from beyond the horizon. Appleton received the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physics for this work.
Barnett later returned to New Zealand and subsequently became the Director of the New Zealand Meteorological Service.
The Kennelly-Heaviside layer is now called the E layer and the higher Appleton-Barnett layer the F layer, giving some
idea of the complexity of the ionized layers.
In 1925 Rutherford had a trip home to New Zealand. In an interview published in the Lyttelton Times,
2nd Nov 1925 p9g his reported words were “The experiments were being continued on a large scale with the help of the Radio Board.
It was hoped that they would throw light on some of the more obscure problems of the transmission of radio signals,
and on the state of the upper atmosphere which was responsible for the reflecting of these waves.”
“If your result depends on statistics then you need a better experiment.”
Oft quoted remark attributed to Rutherford.
P. M. S. Blackett in his Rutherford Memorial Lecture of 26 Nov 1954 recounted a story well-know to
him but of unknown origin. Rutherford’s advice to a research student, who had brought his results to Rutherford
and started an elaborate discussion of their probable significance in the light of error theory, was:- "Do forget
about the theory of errors and go back to your laboratory and do the experiment again.”
The usual wording given for the quote seems to be from 1961 when John Hammersley, a mathematician of Oxford University,
in writing an article "Monte Carlo Methods" (published in 1962 as report No. 62-2 Proceedings of
the Seventh Confrence on the design of Experiments in Army Research Development and Testing by the US Army Research Office)
in which he says (p17) "In Monte Carlo work we can take heed of Lord Rutherford’s dictum: “If your experiment
needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.” In a sense, all good Monte Carlo work is self-liquidating:
although we start out with random numbers in order to solve a problem, which may seem to be intractable by conventional
numerical analysis, nevertheless we should strive to reduce their influence on the final result, and one should always
seize any opportunity to replace a part or even the whole of the sampling experiment by exact analysis." (Thanks to Chris
Wiggins for the information in this paragraph after he pointed out (16/2/21) the website https://quoteinvestigator.com/tag/judy-campisi/).
Rutherford the Statesman
“Impartiality (of the BBC) should be preserved.”
Ernest Rutherford, 6th Feb 1933.
Rutherford often gave talks on the British Broadcasting Corporation and championed the freedom of the BBC.
His name headed the list of twenty-nine signatories who wrote to the Editor of The Times (Published 6 Feb 1933 p13e)
“Impartiality should be preserved not by the censorship even of strongly controversial statements, but giving
an equal opportunity for the expression of the opposite point of view.”
“Among scientific men, the degree of interest in the history of their subject varies curiously with age.”
Ernest Lord Rutherford, 1933.
Ernest Rutherford, when reviewing the English edition of Philipp Lenard's book
Great Men of Science : A History of Scientific Progress for the science magazine Nature (9 Sep 1933 p367).
The book covered only those scientists who were dead or no longer active. Rutherford opened the review with
"Among scientific men, the degree of interest in the history of their subject varies curiously with age.
As a rule, the young investigator has little interest in the origins of the scientific conceptions with which he works;
it is only later when he has gained some personal experience of the ways in which new knowledge is secured,
and the way in which the new developments are linked with the past, that he begins to take an interest in the
history of his science and the achievements and personalities of the great pioneers."
“If you bring a child into the world you must educate it.”
Said by Peter Kapitza to Rutherford 1925.
Recorded by John Cockcroft in a letter to his fiancée and reproduced in “Cockcroft and the Atom”,
G. Hartcup and T. Allibone, Adam Hilger, 1984, p31.
Rutherford supplied Kapitza, one of his favourite researchers, with funds, grants and buildings. In these early days
Rutherford was having telephones installed in the Cavendish and Kapitza asked for one for his office. Cockcroft reported
"The Prof is a great economist and he’s continually having tiffs with Kapitza on this score. He told Kapitza the other
day that he was an "expensive child". To this Kapitza reported that "If you bring a child into the world you must educate it".
And so he got his telephone."
“We are rather like children, who must take a watch to pieces to see how it works.”
Ernest Rutherford 1932.
Richie Calder visited the Cavendish to see a demonstration of the atom being split in the Cockcroft-Walton
accelerator which he wrote up in the Daily Herald 27 Jun 1932 p8. “ “We are rather like children, who must take a watch
to pieces to see how it works,” said Lord Rutherford laughingly. And the “watch” is the atom.”
Ernest Rutherford (1925).
Rutherford on Theory
“One thoroughgoing experiment is worth all the theories in the world – even if those theories
are those of a Bohr.”
Ernest Rutherford c1922
Recollection of Cecilia Payne who attended Rutherford’s advanced physics class at the Cavendish in c1921-22.
(p117 “Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – An autobiography and other recollections, Katherine Haramundanis (Ed) CUP 1984)
She also records Eddington stating later that he "would not believe an observation unless it was supported by a good theory.
I was an astronomer by that time and knew him well. I told him I was shocked by his pronouncement. He smiled gently.
"I thought it would be good for Rutherford," he said."
“Theorists play games with their symbols, but we in the Cavendish turn out the real facts of Nature.”
Recollected by P. M. S. Blackett in his Rutherford Memorial Lecture of 26 Nov 1954.
Rutherford on Relativity
“I don't believe there are more than six people in the whole world who really understand what that
Einstein theory means.”
Ernest Rutherford (1920).
Henry Dale, in his 1949 lecture at Canterbury College, New Zealand, “Some Personal Memories of Lord Rutherford
of Nelson”, recalled (p16-17) a 1920 discussion in the Fellows’ Combination room at Trinity College, concerning prominent
press coverage of observations, taken during an eclipse, which agreed with Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.
Finally Rutherford stated “Well, I don't believe there are more than six people in the whole world who really
understand what that Einstein theory means.” And when I meekly enquired who might be the other five, he looked at
me quizzically for a moment, and then, with a gust of laughter – "Good Lord! Dale," he exclaimed, "you don't suppose
that I understand it do you?"
“Relativity is a magnificent work of art.”
Ernest Rutherford (1932).
In responding to the toast 'Science' at the annual banquet of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1932 Rutherford stated:-
"The theory of relativity by Einstein, quite apart from any question of its validity (laughter), could not but be
regarded as a magnificent work of art.” (As Reported in The Times 2 May 1932 p8c.)
Rutherford on Other Sciences
“The more physics you know the less engineering you need.”
Ernest Rutherford (1925).
Ernest Rutherford 2nd Nov 1925, during a talk to Canterbury College students.
The Press, 3rd Nov 1925 p10d reported in their general news “Very few engineers are physicists,” said Sir Ernest Rutherford
during the course of a lecture given by him before students at Canterbury College yesterday afternoon. "If you take my advice,"
he added, amongst laughter, "the more physics you know the less engineering you need."
Earlier in the day, on his way to a noon civic reception, gowned Canterbury College students intercepted his motor-car,
hauled it to the civic chambers, and, on arrival, gave him a rousing Maori war cry (haka?). At that evening’s conversazione
in his honour at the Art Gallery, the guest list ran to 37 column-cms. Lady Rutherford "wore a becoming dress of pale beige
georgette, with gold tracery and motifs of black net embroidered with brilliants." She carried a presented bouquet of
lilies of the valley and pink rosebuds. Such is the detail of information available to historians in early newspapers.
“It will be a very great advantage when a chemist will think in electrons rather than in atoms.”
Ernest Rutherford (1922).
Ernest Rutherford in a letter to Arthur Smithells, 19th Jan 1922, (Hocken Library Misc-MS-0807/001.)
Rutherford on Industrial Research
“As a firm believer in the power of science, and of the scientific method in its applications to industry,
I am convinced there is hardly a single unit, whether of machinery, or layout, or even of organisation, that cannot be
improved for its purpose by the application of patient scientific research.”
Ernest Rutherford (1935).
Rutherford on opening the L.M.S. Research Laboratory at Derby, 10th Dec 1935.
Reported in the Derby Evening Telegraph, Tue 10th Dec 1935.
“I hope that the whole of the country will be surveyed via soil science.”
Ernest Rutherford (1st Nov 1925).
In praising the agricultural research work of the Cawthron Institute in Nelson, he emphasised the
importance of their Nelson soil survey and concluded "I hope that by the time I visit New Zealand again the
whole of the country will be surveyed from this point of view." (Interview with a reporter published in the
Lyttelton Times 2nd Nov 1925, p9e. 1925 was to be Rutherford’s last visit home as his parents died in 1928 and 1935.)
In Awe of Rutherford
Ernest Rutherford (1925).