Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics

By Edward Teller; Judith L. Shoolery | Go to book overview

12
THE JOY OF
BEING A FOREIGNER
1934-1935

IN SEPTEMBER 1934, I took the train from Copenhagen to London; Mici, who had been my girlfriend for a decade and was now my bride of six months, accompanied me. We spent most of our time on a ferry and suffered through the roughest ride I've ever had on air, land, or sea. (I avoided seasickness, but barely.) We brought with us everything we owned, which didn't amount to much but somehow filled seventeen pieces of luggage.

Almost as soon as we arrived, I went off to a physics conference sponsored by the British Association of Science (The British Ass, as it was fondly called). I wanted to hear Lord Ernest Rutherford, one of the earliest contributors to atomic theory, who was to speak at the conference. 1 His demonstration that most of the atom's volume is empty space had provided the initial impetus for Niels Bohr to work on atomic theory.

Early in his career, Rutherford had advocated the impossible—that elements mutated when they emitted an alpha particle. He had also found that a great amount of energy was released in such emissions. The Rutherford I heard was a very different man. On the day of the meeting, Rutherford spent his time railing indignantly against the "idiotic" proposition that the great

____________________
1
Rutherford, who was born in New Zealand, began his career teaching physics at McGill University in Canada. He studied the alpha particles released by some elements and decided that such emissions transmuted the element. His Canadian colleagues denounced him as a fool for ignoring the basic fact that elements are immutable. Rutherford proved more immutable than the elements. He went to Manchester, England, and then to Cambridge, where he established the Cavendish Laboratory as a leading center for the experimental study of the atom.

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