The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 3 (June 1, 1937)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 48 — Lord Rutherford of Nelson, our Greatest Scientist. A New Zealand Boy and his Wonderful Career
Famous New Zealanders
Lord Rutherford of Nelson, our Greatest Scientist. A New Zealand Boy and his Wonderful Career
The most distinguished of living New Zealanders, and one of the leading scientists in the world—indeed he is considered by many the greatest of all scientific investigators to-day—is our first New Zealand-born peer of the realm, Lord Rutherford of Nelson. The most intellectual man that this country has produced, he has penetrated most deeply into the mysteries of the physical world, and his discoveries have made him a figure regarded with reverence by the scientists of the earth. He has been described as “Britain's No. 1 Scientist.” His discoveries have won him world-wide honours, but he is the most modest of men, delighting in the quiet life in his English home and in his laboratory work at Cambridge. He is Chairman of the British Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and at sixty-six years of age is still working away eagerly in the field of research which has yielded up to him and his colleagues such wonderful results. It has been said of him that the school of research he has created will produces “discoveries that will change the course of history and that will transform the economics of human life as we live it to-day.”
Ernest Rutherford was born at Spring Grove (now called Brightwater), Nelson, on August 30th, 1871. He was the fourth child in a large family. His father, James Rutherford, had first engaged in timber-milling when he settled in that province; later on he was a flax-miller.
His mother, who was Martha Thomson, was a woman of uncommonly keen alert intellect, and of the physical powers that the pioneer life requires and develops. She was a schoolteacher until she married. She lived to the age of over ninety, clear and vigorous in mind to the last, watching with quiet pride and joy the career of her son, whose greatest pleasure from his youth up lay in the delight his successes gave his parents.
The Havelock School.
When Ernest was eleven years old the Rutherfords removed to Havelock, in Marlborough, and in that secluded township at the head of Pelorus Sound the boy came under the influence of an excellent teacher, Mr. Jacob H. Reynolds.
This master was not content with the ordinary school syllabus. For an hour each morning, before nine o'clock, he conducted a class in Latin for his most promising seventh-standard boys, of whom Ernest was one. The boy became a source of great pride to Havelock when he won the Marl-borough Provincial Scholarship of £52/10/- for two years, tenable at Nelson College.
Dr. E. Marsden, Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, who tells of those early days of his friend, accompanied Rutherford to the old school at Havelock when the great scholar revisited New Zealand, and heard many reminiscences of Mr. Reynolds and his brilliant pupil. One old resident narrated how young Rutherford sat alone in the school for the scholarship examination, and how the supervisor read each page as it was written and gave his opinion to callers as to how the candidate was getting along.
From School to University.
At Nelson College the Havelock boy quickly justified his old teacher's faith in him. He won scholarships, and became dux of the college, and in 1889 gained a University Scholarship which took him to Canterbury College. Then, in that congenial home of scholarship the lad's studies inclined strongly to original research in the fascinating world of physical science.
Under Professor Bickerton he studied wireless waves, then called “Hertzian waves.” That was about the year 1893. These were some of the first world experiments in the wonderful wireless. Continued afterwards at Cambridge they led to the construction of the first magnetic detector of wireless waves, afterwards completed and patented by Marconi.
Dr. Marsden tells this little story of a prophecy made by Rutherford while he was a student at Canterbury College. At one of the meetings of the College Debating Society in 1890 the subject was “Is Sculpture or Architecture the Greater Art?”
Ernest Rutherford, then eighteen years old, in his first year at college, gave his views. The architectural beauty of the new College Hall was discussed, and Rutherford complained that the view of the building from the street was spoiled by the intrusion of an ugly great telegraph post, loaded with wires. The day would come, he said, when the telegraph post and the telegraph wires would be unnecessary, for science was on the threshold of further discoveries that would abolish both. Even at that date the eager student had peered with accurate page 16 vision into the amazing future, which has already seen so much of his dream realised.
Research Work at Cambridge.
Graduating at Canterbury with double first-class honours, in mathematics and physics, the young investigator was awarded the 1851 Exhibition Scholarship by the University, and this carried him to Cambridge. There he was quickly immersed in the study of Rontgen's great discovery of X-rays, so called because at that time their nature was quite unknown. The experimental work arising from this discovery has led during the forty odd years which have elapsed to the understanding of the whole nature of electricity and matter and the isolation of the individual units of both. The whole of physical and chemical science has been revolutionised, and the commercial and industrial application of the work has given us a succession of modern miracles.
The Rutherford Chain of Discoveries.
To a non-scientific writer like myself, marvelling at the mental capacity which can unlock such magical secrets of the physical world, a technical review of the great New Zealander's work is not possible. I must turn therefore to the narratives and explanations of others, and especially to the writings of Dr. Marsden, who has been Secretary of our Department of Scientific and Industrial Research since its foundation some fifteen years ago; before that he was Professor of Physics at Victoria University College and Assistant Director of Education.
We have all read of Rutherford's amazing discoveries in the study of atoms, and of how he succeeded in splitting the atom, but how he accomplished that wizardly feat is a recondite mystery to most of us. Dr. Mardsen has, therefore, most kindly come to my help, and has given this lucid exposition of the Rutherford discoveries, amplifying articles and a radio talk he delivered several years ago.
From X-rays, Dr. Marsden explains, Rutherford turned his attentions to the radiations from radium and so-called radio-active bodies which had certain similar properties and on which pioneering work had been done in France by Becquerel, and by Curie and Madame Curie. He soon made interesting and far-reaching discoveries, including the radio-active emanations, such as are used in treatment in our hospitals; and he worked out the nature and properties of the radiations emitted. He found these to be of three kinds—the alpha rays, or atoms of helium, the beta rays which are electrons emitted with speeds almost up to that of light, and the gamma rays which, like X-rays, were similar to light waves, but because of their small wave-lengths were able to pierce the relatively coarse open structure of ordinary matter. Since that time he has devoted himself to the use of these radiations, in unravelling the secrets of atoms and the way in which these atoms are constructed. He was able to count atoms one by one, although they are so small that in air, for example, in a space occupied by a pin head, the number of atoms is about 25,000,000 times the total population of the earth.
The Structure of Atoms.
Professor Andrade, of the University of London, in an exposition of Rutherford's experiments with the structure of the atom, said that the scientific interest of atomic transmutation could not be exaggerated, but the prospect of an actual engineering use of atomic energy seemed remote.
The total amounts of energy with which the Cambridge school workers are dealing are ludicrously small, Andrade said, from an engineering point of view. “But they are not so absurd from a medical point of view, for here it is not a large amount of energy that is required, but energy of a very special kind that can be produced locally, as in the radium treatment of cancer.”
Rutherford's Character and Methods
Sir William Bragg, head of the Royal Institution, has described Lord Rutherford's working methods and influence in very pleasant terms. Rutherford, he wrote, keenly loved research for its own sake. He had a fine judgment of the essential, and he had the courage to break with precedent and try out his own ideas. “Rutherford has upset many theories but he has never belittled anyone's work. He has added new pages to the book of Physical Science and has always taught his students to venerate the old, even when the writing has become a little old-fashioned…. He always takes a broad and generous view, giving credit to others for their contributions to knowledge, and never pressing for the recognition of his (Continued on page 55.)page break