Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16 16-19
Ernest Rutherford was a pioneering nuclear physicist who proposed the concept of half-life and categorised alpha and beta radiation.
Farming’s loss is physics’ gain
Ernest Rutherford grew up on a farm in rural New Zealand and spent his early life chopping wood and hunting pigeons. He received the news that he had been awarded a scholarship for postgraduate study at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge whilst working on the farm and is reported to have said to his mother: “That’s the last potato I’ll ever dig.”
When the young Russian scientist Pytor Kapitsa sought a job in Rutherford’s laboratory, Rutherford was initially uninterested. Kapitsa asked Rutherford how many students were in his laboratory and the usual degree of accuracy of experiments. Rutherford replied that there were 30 students and experimental accuracy was around 2-3%. Kapitsa is said to have responded: “Well then, one more student would not even be noticed within that margin of accuracy!” Kapitsa got the job and soon became one of Rutherford’s favourite students.
Kapitsa gave Rutherford the nickname ‘the crocodile’ because in Russia the crocodile is a symbol of the father and, because of its stiff neck, “it just goes straight forward with gaping jaws — like science, like Rutherford”
The sculptor Eric Gill was commissioned to add a carving of a crocodile to a wall of the Mond Laboratory in Cambridge.
More significant than submarines
Whilst Rutherford was carrying out experiments on the bombardment of nuclei with alpha particles during the First World War, he was called to a meeting of the AntiSubmarine Division. He didn’t attend, sending a telegraph that read: “If, as I have reason to believe, I have disintegrated the nucleus of the atom, this is of greater significance than the war.”
Rutherford became a keen golfer, after having been introduced to the sport by his supervisor J. J. Thomson. Thomson’s interest in the sport had led him to publish a paper on the dynamics of the golf ball in the journal Nature.
Nobility and an untimely end
When Rutherford fell ill towards the end of his life, medical assistance was tragically delayed. Rutherford had received a peerage, becoming Lord Rutherford of Nelson. At the time, it was still the custom that only doctors who were members of the nobility could treat noble patients. It has been suggested that the delay which resulted from an appropriately ranked doctor, Sir Thomas Dunhill, travelling from Harley Street in London to Cambridge, cost Rutherford his life. Rutherford died in 1937 aged 66 of complications arising from surgery to remove a hernia.