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

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • I - Historical Synopsis 3
  • 1 - How the Heavens Go 5
  • 2 - A Man Obsessed 18
  • II - Historical Synopsis 41
  • 3 - A Tale of Two Revolutions 43
  • 4 - On the Dark Side 51
  • 5 - A Holy Undertaking 59
  • 6 - Unities and a Unifier 71
  • 7 - The Scientist as Virtuoso 78
  • 8 - The Road to Entropy 93
  • 9 - The Greatest Simplicity 106
  • 10 - The Last Law 124
  • III - Historical Synopsis 135
  • 11 - A Force of Nature 137
  • 12 - The Scientist as Magician 154
  • IV - Historical Synopsis 177
  • 13 - Molecules and Entropy 179
  • V - Historical Synopsis 201
  • 14 - Adventure in Thought 203
  • VI - Historical Synopsis 229
  • 15 - Reluctant Revolutionary 231
  • 16 - Science by Conversation 242
  • 17 - The Scientist as Critic 256
  • 18 - Matrix Mechanics 263
  • 19 - Wave Mechanics 275
  • VII - Historical Synopsis 293
  • 20 - Opening Doors 295
  • 21 - On the Crest of a Wave 308
  • 22 - Physics and Friendships 330
  • 23 - Complete Physicist 344
  • VIII - Historical Synopsis 363
  • 24 - Iγ·∂ψ = Mψ 365
  • 25 - What Do You Care? 376
  • 26 - Telling the Tale of the Quarks 403
  • IX - Historical Synopsis 421
  • 27 - Beyond the Galaxy 423
  • 28 - Ideal Scholar 438
  • 29 - Affliction, Fame, and Fortune 452
  • Chronology of the Main Events 464
  • Glossary 469
  • Invitation to More Reading 478
  • Index 485
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