Ernest Rutherford

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Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson, OM PC FRS (30 August 187119 October 1937) was a Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist from New Zealand. He was known as the "father" of nuclear physics. He pioneered the orbital theory of the atom based upon his discovery of Rutherford scattering in the gold foil experiment. Rutherford worked under J. J. Thomson as a research student in the Cavendish laboratory and, following prize-winning research at other institutions, became director of the Cavendish in 1919. As director, he oversaw the Nobel Prize winning research of Ernest Walton and John Cockcroft, who split the lithium atom using an early particle accelerator, called the Cockcroft–Walton generator.

See also:
Radio-activity (1904)

Quotes[edit]

listed in chronological order

Radioactivity is shown to be accompanied by chemical changes in which new types of matter are being continually produced. … The conclusion is drawn that these chemical changes must be sub-atomic in character.
An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.
When we have found how the nucleus of atoms is built up we shall have found the greatest secret of all — except life.
  • Radioactivity is shown to be accompanied by chemical changes in which new types of matter are being continually produced. … The conclusion is drawn that these chemical changes must be sub-atomic in character.
    • "The Cause and Nature of Radioactivity" in Philosophical Magazine (September 1902)
  • It is not in the nature of things for any one man to make a sudden violent discovery; science goes step by step, and every man depends on the work of his predecessors. When you hear of a sudden unexpected discovery—a bolt from the blue, as it were—you can always be sure that it has grown up by the influence of one man on another, and it is this mutual influence which makes the enormous possibility of scientific advance. Scientists are not dependent on the ideas of a single man, but on the combined wisdom of thousands of men, all thinking of the same problem, and each doing his little bit to add to the great structure of knowledge which is gradually being erected.
  • All science is either physics or stamp collecting.
    • As quoted in Rutherford at Manchester (1962) by J. B. Birks
    • Unsourced variants:
    • That which is not measurable is not science. That which is not physics is stamp collecting.
    • Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.
    • That which is not measurable is not science. — (which is also attributed to Lord Kelvin)
  • It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life. It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.
    • Discussing the result of an experiment where about 1 out of 8000 alpha particles were scattered backwards when fired at a thin sheet of metal foil, which led to the discovery of the atomic nucleus, as quoted in Rutherford and the Nature of the Atom (1964) by E. N. da C. Andrade, p. 111, and in Nobel Laureates in chemistry, 1901-1992 by Laylin K. James, p. 57
  • An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.
    • As quoted in Einstein: The Man and His Achievement (1973) by G. J. Whitrow, p. 42
    • Variants:
    • If you can't explain your physics to a barmaid it is probably not very good physics.
      • As quoted in Journal of Advertising Research (March-April 1998)
    • A theory that you can't explain to a bartender is probably no damn good.
      • As quoted in The Language of God (2006) by Francis Collins, p. 60
  • I know what the atom looks like!
    • David Wilson, Rutherford, Simple Genius (1983)
  • When we have found how the nucleus of atoms is built up we shall have found the greatest secret of all — except life. We shall have found the basis of everything — of the earth we walk on, of the air we breathe, of the sunshine, of our physical body itself, of everything in the world, however great or however small — except life.
    • As quoted in The Wit and Wisdom of the 20th Century : A Dictionary of Quotations‎ (1987) by Frank S. Pepper, p. 226
  • I came into the room which was half-dark and presently spotted Lord Kelvin in the audience, and realised that I was in for trouble at the last part of my speech dealing with the age of the Earth, where my views conflicted with his.
    To my relief, Kelvin fell fast asleep, but as I came to the important point, I saw the old bird sit up, open an eye and cock a baleful glance at me.
    Then a sudden inspiration came, and I said Lord Kelvin had limited the age of the Earth, provided no new source [of heat] was discovered. That prophetic utterance referred to what we are now considering tonight, radium! Behold! The old boy beamed upon me.
  • We're like children who always want to take apart watches to see how they work.
    • As quoted by Freeman Dyson, "Seeing the Unseen," New York Review of Books (Feb. 24, 2005), quoting Rutherford in the London Daily Herald
  • We've got no money, so we've got to think.
  • I have broken the machine and touched the ghost of matter.
    • As quoted by Richard Reeves, A Force of Nature The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford (2008) citing Ernest Rutherford Atom Man
  • The first point that arises is the atom. I was brought up to look at the atom as a nice hard fellow, red or grey in colour, according to taste. In order to explain the facts, however, the atom cannot be regarded as a sphere of material, but rather as a sort of wave motion of a peculiar kind. The theory of wave-mechanics, however bizarre it may appear... has the astonishing virtue that it works, and works in detail, so that it is now possible to understand and explain things which looked almost impossible in earlier days. One of the problems encountered is the relation between the electron, an atom and the radiation produced by them jointly; the new mechanics states the type of radiation emitted with correct numerical relations. When applied to the periodic table, a competent and laborious mathematician can predict the periodic law from first principles.
    • A. S. Eve, Rutherford (2013)

Quotes about Rutherford[edit]

  • In 2005, we had a couple of things going for us. First, of course, we knew how the experiment was supposed to come out. They had been out there in the blue. We also had faster, stronger, and more reliable equipment to pull vacuums, greatly reducing the results contaminated by the odd air molecule or hydrogen atom. But we, and the world, now know the deadly dangers of radioactivity. Rutherford used to toss bits of radioactive material in his pocket and then, before dinner, into the top drawer of his desk at home. ...If we tried to use what they used, we couldn't all be in this room... We couldn't be in the building.
  • Rutherford's discovery was the beginning of the science that came to be called nuclear physics. ...The projectiles that he used to explore the nucleus were particles produced in the disintegration of radium... discovered by Marie Curie in 1898. The particles are helium nuclei that are emitted at high speed when radium atoms decay...The twenty years between 1909 and 1929 were the era of tabletop nuclear physics. ...Small and simple experiments were sufficient to establish the basic laws of nuclear physics.
  • The switch from natural sources of particles to accelerators would start a new era in the history of science, the era of accelerator physics. ...The two men who actually built the first accelerator were John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, graduate students working... under the supervision of Rutherford. ...For five years they struggled to create a technology of big machines in a laboratory of tabletop experiments, just as the Wright brothers had struggled to create a technology of flying machines in a bicycle shop ....In April of 1932, they had a machine that produced a steady stream of hydrogen nuclei with an energy of about half a million volts. ...Walton was... ready to do the experiment... to bombard a target made of the light metal lithium. The result was spectacular. The lithium nuclei were split in two and fell apart into pairs of helium nuclei. The helium nuclei came out with thirty times as much energy as the hydrogen nuclei going in. ...Rutherford happily spent the rest of the day serving as Walton's assistant... That day, the era of tabletop nuclear physics ended and the era of big machines and big projects began.
    • Freeman Dyson, The Scientist As Rebel (2006)
  • He died a year before the discovery of the fission of the uranium nucleus in Berlin in 1938, the discovery which turned nuclear physics into a big industry and a weapon of war.
    • Freeman Dyson, The Scientist As Rebel (2006)
  • Rutherford did not pretend to understand quantum mechanics, but he understood that the Gamow formula would give his accelerator a crucial advantage. Even particles accelerated at much lower energies... would be able to penetrate into nuclei. Rutherford invited Gamow to Cambridge in January 1929... [They] became firm friends and Gamow's insight gave Rutherford the impetus to go full steam ahead with the building of his accelerator.
  • One can hardly speak of being friendly with a force of nature.
    • Paul Langevin, referring to his fellow research assistant Rutherford at Cavendish Laboratory, as quoted by Richard Reeves, A Force of Nature The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford (2008)
  • He seemed bored with his radio work. ...he had transmitted signals more than half a mile through Cambridge's stone builidings, and there was great interest in finding a way to use such signals in ship-to-shore communications... Some scientists, astonished at those demonstrations, believed that Rutherford's work in New Zealand and then at the Cavendish was actually ahead of the work being done by Guglielmo Marconi...
    • Richard Reeves, A Force of Nature The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford (2008)

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