Ernest Rutherford

Rutherford and the Nature of the Atom

by E.N.da C. Andrade
Anchor, 213 pp., $1.25

This Anchor paperback is a biography of the physicist Ernest Rutherford. The author is himself a noted physicist and metallurgist. He worked with Rutherford as a student and associate in perhaps the most exciting days of Rutherford’s many: in the years just before 1914, in Manchester, after Rutherford had discovered the atomic nucleus. Moseley was there, showing that the characteristic X-rays of the elements provided a direct measurement of nuclear charge and atomic number, and thus “calling the roll” of the elements Niels Bohr was also in Manchester, facing the implications of the nuclear atom for atomic structure, a structure unintelligible in terms of Newtonian dynamics, and calling for such new descriptions as stationary states, transitions between them, and quantum conditions determining the energy of the states in terms of the electron’s mass and charge, and the quantum of action that “governed” the atom. The author is a polished and experienced lecturer; he is a poet; he is an historian of science. Few biographers can have as engaging and noble a subject.

The biography takes us from Rutherford’s birth, on a small homestead near the village of Nelson on the South Island of New Zealand, to the interment of his ashes, sixty-six years later near Newton’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. This is an intellectual biography, following Rutherford’s arguments, experiments, and conclusions. There is little in it that takes Rutherford away from physics. We learn almost nothing of his wife and his marriage, though there are quotations from his early letters to Mary Newton in New Zealand, telling of his professional progress, and particularly of the prospects of an income adequate to sustain marriage. His daughter appears only once, in a word of her tragic death. There is a good deal of Rutherford’s honors, which are explained with great care, for an audience ignorant of the meaning of the Order of Merit, of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, of a peerage. We learn of Rutherford’s love of gardening only because it was a small accident in his garden that led, prematurely, obscurely, perhaps unnecessarily, to his own death. There is nothing of the Rutherford home which, to so many of the younger generation, was to be almost a second home. But of Rutherford the physicist there is a sustained, scrupulous, and extraordinarily full account.

In two respects Andrade takes great care to help the lay reader. He describes in detail the physics laboratories of Rutherford’s youth: the meagreness of the equipment, its crankiness and inconvenience, the lack of money, of electricity, and of almost all that we take for granted. There is a plate showing Rutherford with the equipment in which, late during the first world war, he first disintegrated the nucleus of nitrogen. It is hard to make the equipment out in the plate, but I have seen it in the Cavendish Laboratory; it is to our present-day eyes unbelievably small, homemade, and simple; one can tell in the plate that it hardly occupies the space between the two sides…

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