Rutherford

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Charles P. Snow

Rutherford chapter from Charles P. Snow's Variety of Men (1967).


IN 1923, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Liverpool, Rutherford announced, at the top of his enormous voice: “We are living in the heroic age of physics.” He went on saying the same thing, loudly and exuberantly, until he died, fourteen years later.

The curious thing was, all he said was absolutely true. There had never been such a time. The year 1932 was the most spectacular year in the history of science. Living in Cambridge, one could not help picking up the human, as well as the intellectual, excitement in the air. James Chadwick, grey-faced after a fortnight of work with three hours' sleep a night, telling the Kapitsa Club (to which any young man was so proud to belong) how he had discovered the neutron; P. M. S. Blackett, the most handsome of men, not quite so authoritative as usual, because it seemed too good to be true, showing plates which demonstrated the existence of the positive electron; John Cockcroft, normally about as much given to emotional display as the Duke of Wellington, skimming down King's Parade and saying to anyone whose face he recognized: “We've split the atom! We've split the atom!”

It meant an intellectual climate different in kind from anything else in England at the time. The tone of science was the tone of Rutherford: magniloquently boastful — boastful because the major discoveries were being made — creatively confident, generous, argumentative, lavish, and full of hope. The tone differed from the tone of literary England as much as Rutherford's personality differed from that of T. S. Eliot. During the twenties and thirties Cambridge was the metropolis of experimental physics for the entire world. Even in the late nine- teenth century, during the professorships of Clerk Maxwell and J. J. Thomson, it had never quite been that. “You're always at the crest of the wave,” someone said to Rutherford. “Well, after all, I made the wave, didn't I?” Rutherford replied.

I remember seeing him a good many times before I first spoke to him. I was working on the periphery of physics at the time, and so didn't come directly under him. I already knew that I wanted to write novels, and that was how I should finish, and this gave me a kind of ambivalent attitude to the scientific world; but, even so, I could not avoid feeling some sort of excitement, or enhancement of interest, whenever I saw Rutherford walking down Free School Lane.

He was a big, rather clumsy man, with a substantial bay-window that started in the middle of the chest. I should guess that he was less muscular than at first sight he looked. He had large staring blue eyes and a damp and pendulous lower lip. He didn't look in the least like an intellectual. Creative people of his abundant kind never do, of course, but all the talk of Rutherford looking like a farmer was unperceptive nonsense. His was really the kind of face and physique that often goes with great weight of character and gifts. It could easily have been the soma of a great writer. As he talked to his companions in the street, his voice was three times as loud as any of theirs, and his accent was bizarre. In fact, he came from the very poor: his father was an odd-job man in New Zealand and the son of a Scottish emigrant. But there was nothing Antipodean or Scottish about Rutherford's accent; it sounded more like a mixture of West Country and Cockney.

In my first actual meeting with him, perhaps I could be excused for not observing with precision. It was early in 1930; I had not yet been elected a Fellow of my own college, and so had put in for the Stokes studentship at Pembroke. One Saturday afternoon I was summoned to an interview. When I arrived at Pembroke, I found that the short list contained only two, Philip Dee and me. Dee was called in first; as he was being interviewed, I was reflecting without pleasure that he was one of the brightest of Rutherford's bright young men.

Then came my turn. As I went in, the first person I saw, sitting on the right hand of the Master, was Rutherford himself. While the Master was taking me through my career, Rutherford drew at his pipe, not displaying any excessive interest in the proceedings. The Master came to the end of his questions, and said: “Professor Rutherford?”

Rutherford took out his pipe and turned on to me an eye which was blue, cold and bored. He was the most spontaneous of men; when he felt bored he showed it. That afternoon he felt distinctly bored. Wasn't his man, and a very good man, in for this job? What was this other fellow doing there? Why were we all wasting our time?

He asked me one or two indifferent questions in an irritated, impatient voice. What was my present piece of work? What could spectroscopy tell us anyway? Wasn't it just “putting things into boxes?”

I thought that was a bit rough. Perhaps I realized that I had nothing to lose. Anyway, as cheerfully as I could manage, I asked if he couldn't put up with a few of us not doing nuclear physics. I went on, putting a case for my kind of subject.

A note was brought round to my lodgings that evening. Dee had got the job. The electors wished to say that either candidate could properly have been elected. That sounded like a touch of Cambridge politeness, and I felt depressed. I cheered up a day or two later when I heard that Rutherford was trumpeting that I was a young man of spirit. Within a few months he backed me for another studentship. Incidentally, Dee was a far better scientist than I was or could have been, and neither Rutherford nor anyone else had been unjust.

From that time until he died, I had some opportunities of watching Rutherford at close quarters. Several of my friends knew him intimately, which I never did. It is a great pity that Tizard or Kapitsa, both acute psychological observers, did not write about him at length. But I be- longed to a dining club which he attended, and I think I had serious conversations with him three times, the two of us alone together.

The difficulty is to separate the inner man from the Rutherfordiana, much of which is quite genuine. From behind a screen in a Cambridge tailor's, a friend and I heard a reverberating voice: “That shirt's too tight round the neck. Every day I grow in girth. Aaaaaand in mentality.” Yet his physical make-up was more nervous than it seemed. In the same way, his temperament, which seemed exuberantly powerful, massively simple, rejoicing with childish satisfaction in creation and fame, was not quite so simple as all that. His was a personality of Johnsonian scale. As with Johnson, the facade was overbearing and unbroken. But there were fissures within.

No one could have enjoyed himself more, either in creative work or the honors it brought him. He worked hard, but with immense gusto; he got pleasure not only from the high moments, but also from the hours of what to others would be drudgery, sitting in the dark counting the alpha particle scintillations on the screen. His insight was direct, his intuition, with one curious exception, infallible. No scientist has made fewer mistakes. In the corpus of his published work, one of the largest in scientific history, there was nothing he had to correct afterwards. By thirty he had already set going the science of nuclear physics — single-handed, as a professor on five hundred pounds a year, in the isolation of late-Victorian Montreal. By forty, now in Manchester, he had found the structure of the atom — on which all modern nuclear physics depends.

It was an astonishing career, creatively active until the month he died. He was born very poor, as I have said. New Zealand was, in the 1880s, the most remote of provinces, but he managed to get a good education; enough of the old Scottish tradition had percolated there, and he won all the prizes. He was as original as Einstein, but unlike Einstein he did not revolt against formal instruction; he was top in classics as well as in everything else. He started research — on the subject of wireless waves — with equipment such as one might rustle up today in an African laboratory. That did not deter him: “I could do research at the North Pole,” he once proclaimed, and it was true. Then he was awarded one of the 1851 overseas scholarships (which later brought to England Florey, Oliphant, Philip Bowden, a whole series of gifted Antipodeans). In fact, he got the scholarship only because another man, placed above him, chose to get married: with the curious humility that was interwoven with his boastfulness, he was grateful all of his life. There was a proposal, when he was Lord Rutherford, President of the Royal Society, the greatest of living experimental scientists, to cut down these scholarships. Rutherford was on the committee. He was too upset to speak: at last he blurted out:

“If it had not been for them, I shouldn't have been.” That was nonsense. Nothing could have stopped him. He brought his wireless work to Cambridge, anticipated Marconi, and then dropped it because he saw a field — radioactivity — more scientifically interesting. If he had pushed on with wireless, incidentally, he couldn't have avoided becoming rich. But for that he never had time to spare. He provided for his wife and daughter, they lived in comfortable middle-class houses — and that was all. His work led directly to the atomic energy industry spending, within ten years of his death, thousands of millions of pounds. He himself never earned, or wanted to earn, more than a professor's salary — about £1,600 a year at the Cavendish in the thirties. In his will he left precisely the value of his Nobel Prize, then worth £7,000. Of the people I am writing about, he died much the poorest: even G. H. Hardy, who by Rutherford's side looked so ascetic and unworldly, happened not to be above taking an interest in his investments.

As soon as Rutherford got on to radioactivity, he was set on his life's work. His ideas were simple, rugged, material: he kept them so. He thought of atoms as though they were tennis balls. He discovered particles smaller than atoms, and discovered how they moved or bounced. Sometimes the particles bounced the wrong way. Then he inspected the facts and made a new but always simple picture. In that way he moved, as certainly as a sleepwalker, from unstable radioactive atoms to the discovery of the nucleus and the structure of the atom.

In 1919 he made one of the significant discoveries of all time: he broke up a nucleus of nitrogen by a direct hit from an alpha particle. That is, man could get inside the atomic nucleus and play with it if he could find the right projectiles. These projectiles could either be provided by radioactive atoms or by ordinary atoms speeded up by electrical machines.

The rest of that story leads to the technical and military history of our time. Rutherford himself never built the great machines which have dominated modern particle physics, though some of his pupils, notably Cockcroft, started them. Rutherford himself worked with bizarrely simple apparatus: but in fact he carried the use of such apparatus as far as it would go. His researches remain the last supreme single-handed achievement in fundamental physics. No one else can ever work there again — in the old Cavendish phrase — with sealing wax and string. ”

It was not done without noise: it was done with anger and storms—but also with an overflow of creative energy, with abundance and generosity, as though research were the easiest and most natural avocation in the world. He had deep sympathy with the creative arts, particularly literature; he read more novels than most literary people manage to do. He had no use for critics of any kind. He felt both suspicion and dislike of the people who invested scientific research or any other branch of creation with an aura of difficulty, who used long, methodological words to explain things which he did perfectly by instinct. “Those fellows,” he used to call them. “Those fellows” were the logicians, the critics, the metaphysicians. They were clever; they were usually more lucid than he was; in argument against them he often felt at a disadvantage. Yet somehow they never produced a serious piece of work, whereas he was the greatest experimental scientist of the age.

I have heard larger claims made for him. I remember one discussion in particular, a year or two after his death, by half-a-dozen men, all of whom had international reputations in science. Darwin was there: G. I. Taylor: Fowler and some others. Was Rutherford the greatest experimental scientist since Michael Faraday? Without any doubt. Greater than Faraday? Possibly so. And then — it is interesting, as it shows the anonymous Tolstoyan nature of organized science — how many years' difference would it have made if he had never lived? How much longer before the nucleus would have been understood as we now understand it? Perhaps ten years. More likely only five.

Rutherford's intellect was so strong that he would, in the long run, have accepted that judgment. But he would not have liked it. His estimate of his own powers was realistic, but if it erred at all, it did not err on the modest side. “There is no room for this particle in the atom as designed by me.” I once heard him assure a large audience. It was part of his nature that, stupendous as his work was, he should consider it 10 percent more so. It was also part of his nature that, quite without acting, he should behave constantly as though he were lo per cent larger than life. Worldly success? He loved every minute of it: flattery, titles, the company of the high official world. He said in a speech: “As I was standing in the drawing-room at Trinity, a clergyman came in. And I said to him: 'I'm Lord Rutherford.' And he said to me: 'I'm the Archbishop of York.' And I don't suppose either of us believed the other.”

He was a great man, a very great man, by any standards which we can apply. He was not subtle: but he was clever as well as creatively gifted, magnanimous (within the human limits) as well as hearty. He was also superbly and magnificently vain as well as wise — the combination is commoner than we think when we are young. He enjoyed a life of miraculous success. On the whole he enjoyed his own personality. But I am sure that, even quite late in his life, he felt stabs of a sickening insecurity.

Somewhere at the roots of that abundant and creative nature there was a painful, shrinking nerve. One has only to read his letters as a young man to discern it. There are passages of self-doubt which are not to be explained completely by a humble colonial childhood and youth. He was uncertain in secret, abnormally so for a young man of his gifts. He kept the secret as his personality flowered and hid it. But there was a mysterious diffidence behind it all. He hated the faintest suspicion of being patronized, even when he was a world figure. Archbishop Lang was once tactless enough to suggest that he supposed a famous scientist had no time for reading. Rutherford immediately felt that he was being regarded as an ignorant roughneck. He produced a formidable list of his last month's reading. Then, half innocently, half malevolently: “And what do you manage to read, your Grice?” “I am afraid,” said the Archbishop, somewhat out of his depth, “that a man in my position really doesn't have the leisure. . . .” “Ah, yes, your Grice,” said Rutherford in triumph, “it must be a dog's life! It must be a dog's life!”

Once I had an opportunity of seeing that diffidence face to face. In the autumn of 1934 I published my first novel, which was called The Search and the background of which was the scientific world. Not long after it came out, Rutherford met me in King's Parade. “What have you been doing to us, young man?” he asked vociferously. I began to describe the novel, but it was not necessary; he announced that he had read it with care. He went on to invite, or rather command, me to take a stroll with him round the Backs. Like most of my scientific friends, he was good-natured about the book, which has some descriptions of the scientific experience which are probably somewhere near the truth. He praised it. I was gratified. It was a sunny October afternoon. Suddenly he said: “I didn't like the erotic bits. I suppose it's because we belong to different generations.”

The book, I thought, was reticent enough. I did not know how to reply.

In complete seriousness and simplicity, he made another suggestion. He hoped that I was not going to write all my novels about scientists. I assured him that I was not — certainly not another for a long time.

He nodded. He was looking gentler than usual, and thoughtful. “It's a small world, you know,” he said. He meant the world of science. “Keep off us as much as you can. People are bound to think that you are getting at some of us. And I suppose we've all got things that we don't want anyone to see.”

I mentioned that his intuitive foresight went wrong just once. As a rule, he was dead right about the practical applications of science, just as much as about the nucleus. But his single boss shot sounds ironic now. In 1933 he said, in another address to the British Association, “These transformations of the atom are of extraordinary interest to scientists, but we cannot control atomic energy to an extent which would be of any value commercially, and I believe we are not likely ever to be able to do so. A lot of nonsense has been talked about transmutations. Our interest in the matter is purely scientific.”

That statement, which was made only nine years before the first pile worked, was not intended to be either optimistic or pessimistic. It was just a forecast, and it was wrong.

That judgment apart, people outside the scientific world often felt that Rutherford and his kind were optimistic — optimistic right against the current of the twentieth century literary-intellectual mood, offensively and brazenly optimistic. This feeling was not quite unjustified, but the difference between the scientists and the non-scientists was more complex than that. When the scientists talked of the individual human condition, they did not find it any more hopeful than the rest of us. Does anyone really imagine that Bertrand Russell, G. H. Hardy, Rutherford, Blackett and the rest were bemused by cheerfulness as they faced their own individual state? Very few of them had any of the consolations of religion: they believed, with the same certainty that they believed in Rutherford's atom, that they were going, after this mortal life, into annihilation. Several of them were men of deep introspective insight. They did not need teaching anything at all about the existential absurdity.

Nevertheless it is true that, of the kinds of people I have lived among, the scientists were much the happiest. Somehow scientists were buoyant at a time when other intellectuals could not keep away despair. The reasons for this are not simple. Partly, the nature of scientific activity, its complete success on its own terms, is itself a source of happiness; partly, people who are drawn to scientific activity tend to be happier in temperament than other clever men. By the nature of their vocation and also by the nature of their own temperament, the scientists did not think constantly of the individual human predicament. Since they could not alter it, they let it alone. When they thought about people, they thought most of what could be altered, not what couldn't. So they gave their minds not to the individual condition but to the social one.

There, science itself was the greatest single force for change. The scientists were themselves part of the deepest revolution in human affairs since the discovery of agriculture. They could accept what was happening, while other intellectuals shrank away. They not only accepted it, they rejoiced in it. It was difficult to find a scientist who did not believe that the scientific-technical-industrial revolution, accelerating under his eyes, was not doing incomparably more good than harm. This was the characteristic optimism of scientists in the twenties and thirties. Is it still? In part, I think so. But there has been a change.

In the Hitler war, physicists became the most essential of military resources: radar, which occupied thousands of physicists on both sides, altered the shape of the war, and the nuclear bomb finished large scale “conven- tional” war for ever. To an extent, it had been foreseen by the mid-thirties that if it came to war (which a good many of us expected) physicists would be called on from the start. Tizard was a close friend of Rutherford's, and kept him informed about the prospects of RDF (as radar was then called). By 1938 a number of the Cavendish physicists had been secretly indoctrinated. But no one, no one at all, had a glimmering of how, for a generation afterwards, a high percentage of all physicists in the United States, the Soviet Union, this country, would remain soldiers-not-in-uniform. Mark Oliphant said sadly, when the first atomic bomb was dropped: “This has killed a beautiful subject.” Intellectually that has turned out not to be true: but morally there is something in it. Secrecy, national demands, military influence, have sapped the moral nerve of physics. It will be a long time before the climate of Cambridge, Copenhagen, Gottingen in the twenties is restored: or before any single physicist can speak to all men with the calm authority of Einstein or Bohr. That kind of leadership has now passed to the biologists, who have so far not been so essential to governments. It will be they, I think, who are likely to throw up the great scientific spokesmen of the next decades. If someone now repeated Gorki's famous question, “Masters of culture, which side are you on?” it would probably be a biologist who spoke out for his fellow human beings.

In Rutherford's scientific world, the difficult choices had not yet formed themselves. The liberal decencies were taken for granted. It was a society singularly free from class or national or racial prejudice. Rutherford called himself alternatively conservative or non-political, but the men he wanted to have jobs were those who could do physics. Niels Bohr, Otto Hahn, Georg von Hevesy, Hans Geiger were men and brothers, whether they were Jews, Germans, Hungarians — men and brothers whom he would much rather have near him than the Archbishop of Canterbury or one of “those fellows&ndquo; or any damned English philosopher. It was Rutherford who, after 1933, took the lead in opening English academic life to Jewish refugees. In fact, scientific society was wide open, as it may not be again for many years. There was coming and going among laboratories all over the world, including Russia. Peter Kapitsa, Rutherford's favorite pupil, contrived to be in good grace with the Soviet authorities and at the same time a star of the Cavendish.

He had a touch of genius: in those days, before life sobered him, he had also a touch of the inspired Russian clown. He loved his own country, but he distinctly enjoyed backing both horses, working in Cambridge and taking his holidays in the Caucasus. He once asked a friend of mine if a foreigner could become an English peer; we strongly suspected that his ideal career would see him established simultaneously in the Soviet Academy of Sciences and as Rutherford's successor in the House of Lords.

At that time Kapitsa attracted a good deal of envy, partly because he could do anything with Rutherford. He called Rutherford “the Crocodile,” explaining the crocodile means “father” in Russian, which it doesn't, quite: he had Eric Gill carve a crocodile on his new laboratory. He flattered Rutherford outrageously, and Rutherford loved it. Kapitsa could be as impertinent as a Dostoevskian comedian: but he had great daring and scientific insight. He established the club named after him (which again inspired some envy) : it met every Tuesday night, in Kapitsa's rooms in Trinity, and was deliberately kept small, about thirty, apparently because Kapitsa wanted to irritate people doing physical subjects he disapproved of. We used to drink large cups of milky coffee immediately after hall (living was fairly simple, and surprisingly non-alcoholic, in scientific Cambridge), and someone gave a talk — often a dramatic one, like Chadwick*s on the neutron. Several of the major discoveries of the thirties were first heard in confidence in that room. I don't think that the confidence was ever broken.

I myself enjoyed the one tiny scientific triumph of my life there. At the time Kapitsa barely tolerated me, since I did spectroscopy, a subject he thought fit only for bank clerks: in fact I had never discovered why he let me join. One night I offered to give a paper outside my own subject, on nuclear spin, in which I had been getting interested: I didn't know much about it, but I reckoned that most of the Cavendish knew less. The offer was unenthusiastically accepted. I duly gave the paper. Kapitsa looked at me with his large blue eyes, with a somewhat unflattering astonishment, as at a person of low intelligence who had contrived inadvertently to say something interesting. He turned to Chadwick, and said incredulously, “Jimmy, I believe there is something in this.”

It was a personal loss to Rutherford when Kapitsa, on one of his holiday trips to Russia, was told by the Soviet bosses, politely but unyieldingly, that he must stay: he was too valuable, they wanted his services full-time. After a while Kapitsa made the best of it. He had always been a patriotic Russian: though both he and his wife came from the upper middle-class, if there was such a class in old Russia (his father was a general in the Tsarist engineering corps), he took a friendly attitude to the revolution. All that remained steady, though I don't think he would mind my saying that his enthusiasm for Stalin was not unqualified. Still, Kapitsa threw all his gifts into his new work in the cause of Soviet science. It was only then that we, who had known him in Cambridge, realized how strong a character he was: how brave he was: and fundamentally what a good man. His friendship with Cockcroft and others meant that the link between Soviet and English science was never quite broken, even in the worst days. Only great scientists like Lev Landau can say in full what he has done for science in his own country. If he hadn't existed, the world would have been worse: that is an epitaph that most of us would like and don't deserve.

Between Leningrad and Cambridge, Kapitsa oscillated. Between Copenhagen and Cambridge there was a stream of travelers, all the nuclear physicists of the world. Copenhagen had become the second scientific metropolis on account of the personal influence of one man, Niels Bohr, who was complementary to Rutherford as a person — patient, reflective, any thought hedged with Proustian qualifications — just as the theoretical quantum physics of which he was the master was complementary to Rutherford's experimental physics. He had been a pupil of Rutherford's, and they loved and esteemed each other like father and son. (Rutherford was a paterfamilias born, and the death of his only daughter seems to have been the greatest sorrow of his personal life. In his relations with Bohr and Kapitsa and others, there was a strong vein of paternal emotion diverted from the son he never had.) But, strong as Rutherford's liking for Bohr was, it was not strong enough to put up with Bohr's idea of a suitable length for a lecture. In the Cavendish lecture room, Bohr went past the hour; Rutherford began to stir. Bohr went past the hour and a half; Rutherford began plucking at his sleeve and muttering in a stage whisper about “another five minutes.” Blandly, patiently, determined not to leave a qualification unsaid, as indefatigable as Henry James in his last period, Bohr went past the two hours; Rutherford was beginning to trumpet about “bringing the lecture to a close.” Soon they were both on their feet at once.

Rutherford died suddenly when he was age sixty-six, still in full vigor. He died not only suddenly, but of something like a medical accident: he had a strangulated hernia. There was no discernible reason why he should not have lived into old age.

It was a sunny, tranquil October morning, the kind of day on which Cambridge looks so beautiful. I had just arrived at the crystallographic laboratory, one of the buildings in the old Cavendish muddle; why I was there I don't remember, nor whom I was talking to, except that it happened not to be Bernal. Someone put his head round the door and said: “The Professor's dead.”

I don't think anyone said much more. We were stupefied rather than miserable. It did not seem in the nature of things.