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Miscellaneous

Rutherford Mythology
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Rutherford Sketches
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Quotations
- Eulogies
- Lauding
- In Awe of R
- By Rutherford
- Alchemy
- Rutherford Putdowns


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.

Eulogies

"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 to 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."


Lauding Rutherford

"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?' "


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!"


"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."


Alchemy

"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.

  Other Variants.
"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, platinum."


"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)


Rutherford Putdowns

"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?"
1925.

  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."
1925.

  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.


In Awe of Rutherford

""
1925.

  


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