Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, 1935

Excerpts taken from Variety of Men by C. P. Snow, published 1967

The Man

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.

– – – –

The Method

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.

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