By Richard Easther

It’s the 150th anniversary of the birth of New Zealand’s most celebrated scientist, Ernest Rutherford. Richard Easther acknowledges the man who brought us the insight that our world is made of atoms.

If there is an afterlife for physicists it will certainly include conferences pulling together luminaries from across the centuries: “Newton, you really must meet Einstein, he’s over there by the registration desk. I know you’ll have lots to talk about.”

My Good Place may well be your Bad Place, but any physicist’s post-mortem bucket list has to include Ernest Rutherford, born 150 years ago on August 30. You know those little cartoon atoms that are a graphical shorthand for “science”? The key idea they express – the central nucleus wrapped by a cloud of electrons – is Rutherford’s. The proton? Discovered by Rutherford and his collaborators. Turning the atom of one element into another, fulfilling the dreams of alchemists? Also Rutherford.

New Zealanders talk about “tall poppy syndrome”, where we cut down successful individuals for daring to rise above the rest of the field. But we also stretch some poppies to their limits, as seen in our love of Olympic medal tables computed on a per capita basis. Consequently, growing up with a passion for science I was never certain whether Rutherford was fully famous or just a local lad made good. I shouldn’t have doubted. Nobel Prizes are awarded every year but insights like “the world is made of atoms” and that “atoms are built from smaller, simpler objects” may arrive only once a century, and Rutherford has a big share of both breakthroughs.

Rutherford’s story starts on a farm near Nelson, followed by studies at Canterbury in Christchurch, and ends with him at Cambridge. But his full CV is the classic trajectory of the peripatetic scholar: he headed to Cambridge for his PhD in 1894, began a decade as a professor at McGill in Montreal in 1898, moved to Manchester in 1908, before finally returning to Cambridge in 1919.

In fact, one testimonial to Rutherford’s impact became apparent to me on a visit to McGill, where I was told to make my way to the Rutherford Building, which was the home of their Department of Physics. My PhD is from Canterbury and I did my research in their “Rutherford Building”, and Manchester and Cambridge likewise each have their own Rutherford buildings. Having a building named for you is a rare achievement, and Rutherford collected this honour at each place he stopped – a remarkable architectural Grand Slam.

If you guessed that as a student Rutherford was a colonial rough diamond let loose in late-Victorian Cambridge you would be right. He was subject to the predictable resentments and exclusions that followed from this status, even if his sheer brilliance tipped the scales back in his favour. However, it must have been sweet to return to Cambridge as a full professor and then rise to the pinnacle of British science as president of the Royal Society in the 1920s. Rutherford appears to be a man who greatly enjoyed his life so I doubt he held a significant grudge. (Also, his Manchester salary reputedly made him the highest-paid academic in the United Kingdom, and Cambridge had to stretch to match it.)

Rutherford is repeatedly described as “energetic”, “a force of nature” and a “boy” – very much in the positive sense of someone who brought both energy and wonder to everything he did. He was also loud. There is a famous photograph of him in a Cambridge lab filled with sensitive equipment with a sign above his head saying “Talk Softly Please” that was reputedly largely there for the benefit of “the prof”. Another story claims that the one song he knew was “Onward Christian Soldiers” and this knowledge extended only to the lyrics but not the tune – and that he once paraded around the room (in a different, earlier lab) performing it at the top of lungs after a successful experiment. This also appears to have been the full extent of his engagement with organised religion.

Beyond his discoveries Rutherford shaped the scientific community, both here and in his adopted home. A succession of people did their best work in groups he led, with a dozen of his proteges winning Nobel Prizes of their own. Rutherford was a passionate believer in science as a transnational enterprise. He was president of the Academic Assistance Council which found jobs for Jewish scholars dismissed from German universities after the Nazi regime took power in 1933, and he advocated for the participation of women in science. [Full disclosure: Harvard astronomer, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin thought otherwise, as Rutherford failed to quell boorish behaviour by her male classmates in Cambridge lecture theatres where she was the only woman.]

Rutherford is widely reported to have been approachable and an enemy of needless hierarchy. One tale has him chairing a PhD exam that a more junior academic saw as a chance to impress the great man by mercilessly grilling the candidate. It became apparent that no progress was being made on a gnarly question and Rutherford halted proceedings, turning to his younger colleague and saying, “I don’t know either – why don’t you tell us both,” to the visceral relief of the student. Better yet, the inquisitor was then forced to admit he also didn’t know the answer. I can’t find a source for this story, but the tales told about a person are sometimes as revealing as the truth.

Rutherford retained close links with New Zealand; after one of his many proteges, Ernest Marsden moved to New Zealand (after both war service and helping Rutherford discover the atomic nucleus while still an undergraduate) and played a huge role in New Zealand science for decades. My own path crossed the wake of another of his students, Percy William Burbidge, who was appointed to head the Department of Physics at the University of Auckland on Rutherford’s recommendation, spending decades in the job. A letter from the great man to his former pupil is framed in one of our labs and its focus is a battle with Chemistry for floorspace and student numbers. Some things never change.

If I was to enjoy a pint with Rutherford in some science Valhalla, I would be meeting a hero of mine. But Baron Rutherford of Nelson (whose coat of arms includes both a kiwi and a Māori warrior) would undoubtedly have questions for me about the state of play back home. I could truthfully tell him that we enjoy cordial relations with the chemists but not all the news would be to his liking. In particular, my guess is that he would have sympathy with current concerns about support for young researchers – with his fiancee Mary he endured a years-long engagement before they could afford to marry and, once successful, he was effectively a one-man employment agency for young scientists across the then-Empire.

New Zealanders often want to see Rutherford as a bluff, practical fellow in a world of abstract intellectuals but this shortchanges him in many ways. Rutherford was the world’s leading experimentalist as physics assimilated the deep ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics and untangled the microscopic structure of matter. He spoke to Einstein as a peer and was a mentor to Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. He was certainly one of the deepest thinkers my field has ever seen. Where he led, others followed.

Rutherford saw little practical use in his work – he once dismissed nuclear power as “moonshine”; it was only just before he died that new discoveries meant this belief needed to be revised. He was driven by a passion for understanding and discovery rather than “applications”, and saw open-ended inquiry rather than goal-driven research as key to unlocking the full benefits that science can offer society at large. My guess is that he would see our system as unambitious and top-down, driven by expedience and the shifting short-term winds of government priority rather than harnessing the full curiosity of our scientific community. But he would be optimistic that things could improve.

Beyond being a trove of information and ideas, science is a human community, and Rutherford contributed more than almost anyone to both aspects of our shared enterprise. One hundred and fifty years on it seems that there is much to celebrate in this great New Zealander – and much still to learn from him.

Happy Birthday.

This article was originally published on Newsroom and was republished with permission. For the original, click here.

Richard Easther is a Professor in Physics at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in the physics of the early universe.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.

See Also:

Q+A: How did Stephen Hawking change physics? 

Q+A: What do atoms reveal about human behaviour? Can we end the silence on science?