Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

21
On the Crest of a Wave
Ernest Rutherford

Science as Action

He was large and somewhat clumsy; he had a thundering voice, and piercing eyes that are startling even in old photographs. The conventional role of the intellectual did not appeal to him, so he played it his own way. Once, a distinguished stranger, amazed by his unscholarly accent and appearance, mistook him for an Australian farmer. (His New Zealand origins partly explain the impression.) A nonscientific academic colleague told him he was a “savage—a noble savage I admit—but still a savage!” (This response was not unprovoked. Rutherford had opened the conversation with: “Alexander, all that you have said and all that you have written during the last thirty years—what does it all amount to? Hot air! Hot air!”) He was not inclined toward modesty, if undeserved. After moving from McGill University in Montreal, where he did some of his earliest research, to the University of Manchester, which saw the middle period of his career, he reported to his friend and colleague Bertram Boltwood at Yale: “I find the students here regard a full professor as little short of Lord God Almighty. It is quite refreshing after the critical attitude of the Canadian students. It is always a good thing to feel that you are appreciated.”

Rutherford's energy and ambition have been described, with only slight exaggeration, as volcanic. In nine years at McGill, his first academic position, he managed to publish some seventy papers, become a fellow of the Royal Society, build a significant research school, and complete the research that later earned him a Nobel Prize. These feats were accomplished with little previous experience (he was twenty-seven when he went to Canada), a handful of students, a meager salary, and the Atlantic Ocean separating him from the scientific centers of Britain and Europe. Frederick Soddy, who assisted in Rutherford's most important work at McGill, sometimes found life under the volcano a bit grim: “Rutherford and his radioactive emanations and active deposits got me before many weeks had elapsed and I abandoned all to follow him. For more than two years, scientific life became hectic to a degree rare in the lifetime of an individual, rare perhaps in the lifetime of an institution.” Robert Oppenheimer summarized Ruth

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