How Ernest Rutherford launched the atomic age

When he went to McGill he was an obscure scientist who looked much too young to be a professor. When he left—still a young man—he had changed the course of history

Ray Silver January 3 1959

How Ernest Rutherford launched the atomic age

When he went to McGill he was an obscure scientist who looked much too young to be a professor. When he left—still a young man—he had changed the course of history

Ray Silver January 3 1959

How Ernest Rutherford launched the atomic age

When he went to McGill he was an obscure scientist who looked much too young to be a professor. When he left—still a young man—he had changed the course of history

Ray Silver

Almost half a century before the mushroomshaped cloud that switched civilization onto a new track rose over Hiroshima, a bushy-mustached thirty-two-year-old from McGill University called the shot at a stuffy academic meeting in London.

“The atom must have a store of energy never before suspected,” young Ernest Rutherford told a meeting of his senior fellow-physicists. “1 calculate a pound of radium contains the equivalent of ten million horsepower.”

T his was a daring, almost hare-brained conclusion. But Rutherford, as he later said of himself in a letter to a colleague, never lacked scientific nerve. In nine hard-driving years at McGill, and later in England, he led the world in radiation research and opened the door on discoveries that led past Hiroshima to the H-bomb, the atomic submarine Nautilus, the Russian atom-powered ice-breaker, and the as-yet-unbuilt fixtures of the atomic age.


While Rutherford was working at McGill his discoveries focused world-wide attention on Montreal. Sometimes the glare was too bright; on at least one occasion fellow-professors called a protest meeting, certain that his theories were going to disgrace the entire university. Rutherford got so indignant he was tongue-tied, hut the faculty cooled off when his growing reputation brought some of the outstanding scientists in Europe to work under him at McGill.

Between 1898, when the boyish New7 Zealander fresh out of Cambridge University steppet! off the steamer Yorkshire in Montreal, and 1907 when he returned to England, he won a Nobel prize for chemistry, a fistful of honorary doctorates and turned some of the most sacred shibboleths of science inside-out.

Working in Canada and later in Britain, with different collaborators along the way, he revealed atoms as living, changing colls. He blueprinted them as solar systems in miniature, with hot central suns and whirling satellites. He invented —with Hans Geiger, of Germany—an instrument that's become an everyday word in Canada. He succeeded, where alchemists since before history had failed, in changing one basic substance into a different one. Finally, he launched the ultimate assault on the atom.

He was a tall long-striding nervous youngster who looked more like a cricket player than a scientist when he gave his first lecture at McGill. “McGill is a vers important place to he at.” he had written his fiancée in New Zealand, a few weeks before, “for Callendar (his predecessor as professor of physics) was quite a pot in the scientific world ... 1 am expected to do a lot

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of original work and to form a research school in order to knock the shine out of the Yankees.”

His method for knocking the shine off the Yankees—and anybody else doing research in his field-—was to work harder and get results faster. Although he was a genuinely shy man, Rutherford went after scientific honors openly and forcefully. “I think it is quite probable I may be elected a member of the Royal Society of Canada next year,” he wrote during his first term at McGill. And a year later he wrote his mother. "I have to keep going as there are always people on my track. The best sprinters in this road of investigation arc Becquerel and the Curies in Paris ...”

But when he was in the limelight he was uncomfortable until he got hack to his laboratory. When he returned from England after winning an important scientific prize in 1904 a large group of Canadian scientists feted him at a dinner in Montreal. “I was mighty glad to get it over,” he wrote home. “It is not altogether pleasant to be talked at for four solid hours.”

When he first came to McGill Rutherford found it hard to pick up the pace of a classroom. At first his lectures shot mathematical formulae well over his students’ heads. This may have been partly because he felt under pressure to prove himself. “Professor Rutherford’s experience in teaching.” said the Montreal Gazette on his appointment, "has been gained in New Zealand and by acting as demonstrator of physics in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. His work is well known on the continent of Europe and England."

This blurb was unabashed press-agentry. Rutherford's New Zealand teaching experience had been confined to drilling his young sisters in their homework, and a couple of weeks as a substitute high-school teacher. His demonstrations at Cambridge were a sinecure to warrant a teacher’s pay while he did research.

But he quickly came to terms with his students at McGill. He was straight-to-the-target, seeking facts first, theory second. Downright blunt at times, firm enough to pound a desk in anger, he was generally amiable and always popular. His students fell in with his own spirit.

Even so. he took as few classes as possible, and threw himself into radiation research. The setup at McGill might have been hand-tailored for him. The physics professor who had founded the department. John Cox. was no experimenter. He did the paperwork, the administration. and most of the lecturing, leaving the laboratory experiments largely in Rutherford's hands.

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The McGill laboratory was one of the best experimental physics layouts anywhere. It had been built only seven years earlier on orders to put up a lab that would “meet the needs of half a century.” The lab’s cost-is-no-object benefactor was Sir William Macdonald, a tobacco millionaire who loathed the smoking habit and a university donor—to the tune of fifteen million dollars across Canada — who didn't have a college degree.

At first, when Macdonald visited a university building he had financed, professors puffed on cigarettes to keep him happy. For their pains he cursed them for using ''the vile stuff.” At the McGill lab, workers got used to seeing Rutherford rush ahead of Macdonald on his periodic tours of the building.

“Open the windows, put away your pipes. Hide your tobacco. Hurry up,” Rutherford would puff. “Macdonald is coming round.”

“Macdonald is a millionaire who lives on £250 a year so he reckons a professor should live on £500,” Rutherford wryly wrote his fiancee. “However £500 is not so bad and as the physical lab is the best of its kind in the world I cannot complain.”

Strangely enough, while the “world’s best lab” contributed to Rutherford’s first prominence in Montreal, he came into the public eye through a lawsuit rather than a scientific discovery.

During Rutherford’s first year at McGill the Montreal tramway company was sued by irate householders, who claimed vibrations from a new-fangled electric dynamo were shaking their homes to pieces. Rutherford got the tram company off the hook for a $250 fee.

He built a seismograph—“far more sensitive than an earthquake recorder”—and installed it near the tram company’s powerhouse. He linked the instrument to a pen recorder-—prototype of today s weather and industrial recording devices. Daily Rutherford collected the vibration records and fitted new sheets to the instrument. Duly presented in court, these records proved the vibrations were harmlessly small.

Montreal newspapers recorded this obvious display of scientific achievement. It was far more convincing of Rutherford's genius than an\thing he might be doing with atomic radiation.

By digging deeper the local papers would have found one of the continued on page 30

How Ernest Rutherford launched the atomic age continued from page 25

biggest stories in history taking shape at their back door. Within three weeks of arriving at McGill, Rutherford sent to England for radioactive samples of uranium and thorium. Before his first term at the university was over he identified two kinds of rays in the radioactivity spitting from these minerals, lie named them alpha and beta rays: they've become as well known to science-fiction readers as to physicists.

With Rutherford's advice and collaboration a German scientist, Hans Geiger, later used the magnetic qualities of alpha and beta rays as the working principle of an instrument he designed to signal the presence of radioactivity. In the hands of uranium prospectors the Geiger counter has clicked over deposits that added hundreds of millions of dollars to Canada’s recoverable mineral wealth.

The Rutherford - Geiger tcamplay points up one of Rutherford’s most prominent characteristics: a striking ability to work productively with other men, and particularly to bring out the ability of young and untried collaborators. His assistants at McGill matured rapidly as scientists, and most of them caught some or his infectious self-driving enthusiasm.

"Rutherford and his radioactive emanations got me before many weeks and 1 abandoned all to follow him,” one of them, a twenty-three-year-old chemist from Oxford, Frederick Soddy, whose name was linked with Rutherford’s in some of his most important discoveries, later wrote. ‘Tor more than two years scientific life became hectic to a degree rare in the lifetime of an individual.”

Another Rutherford aide who came to McGill as a youngster wus a German physicist named Otto Hahn. He was a little awed by Rutherford, warmed by his friendliness, always astonished by his disregard for academic dignity. It was Hahn who unlocked the last theoretical puzzle to the A-bomb in a Berlin laboratory on the eve of World War 11 and later claimed he could have gone on to build the bomb for the Führer. Writing about his apprenticeship to Rutherford he said, “ I bis sojourn with one of the greatest masters of physical research was one of the most beautiful memories of my life.”

What bound these men—-and a long list of others that includes most of the trailbreakers of the atomic age. from the Furie family on to Rutherford was probably the quality of his imagination. He had the same mental agility brought to mind by the fable of Newton seeing gravity in a falling apple. But he kept ¡', under control: in his lab ideas soared, but they were anchored to reality like a Hying kite on a string.

His energy and the fierce drive of his attack on scientific problems sometimes left his assistants a little in awe of him. In his two bachelor years at McGill he was in the laboratory until close to midnight five days out of seven—watching the flicker of gold leaves in an electroscope, fashioning a piece of apparatus, or calculating results in his fast, firm and orderly handwriting.

But he still found time for mixing with the McGill men and their wives. He was an amiable companion and he dined out often. On weekends he liked to strike out on jaunts with two professors who roomed at the same lodging house. On a trip his eye was as discerning as it was in the laboratory. His letters home are full of "the magnificent” St. Lawrence; new electric-power installations going up on the Richelieu River;

the iceman delivering his wares to the front door like a baker; a Dominion Day picnic. They read like Sam Pepys’ diary.

In his personal life Rutherford had a high regard for money, though he never stopped to count cost in chasing down a scientific idea. He once cheerfully loaned his entire supply of radium, which he had just bought to use in his own experiments, to confirm an interesting finding by two professional friends. Anil on another occasion he lost a via! of the same costly commodity on a train between Montreal and Ottawa. “That radium will give off its emanation for several thousand years,” he said in a speech that night. But he didn’t press the search for it; there’s no record it was ever found, although the railway commemorated the event by naming the coach it was lost in after Rutherford.

When lie won the British Royal Society’s Rumford Medal for research, a coveted scientific prize that numbered Faraday, Pasteur and Röntgen among previous winners, he recorded the event in a letter by saying that “the medal is a stunner. It weighs fourteen ounces and probably has fifty pounds worth of gold in it."

For love and money

On another occasion Yale named him to give the university’s prestige-loaded Silliman l ectures. To Rutherford’s mind the $2,500 lecture fee was more pertinent than the honor. And long before he won it he sized up the Nobel Prize in terms of cash.

“I may have a chance if I keep going, in another ten years, as there are a good many prominent physicists . . . to have their turn of spending the money,” he said in a letter in 1904.

Four years later, for his work at McGill, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, "it is very acceptable,” ho wrote his mother, “both as regards honor and cash—the latter over seven thousand pounds,”

His preoccupation with money kept him a bachelor during his second year at McGill. “When my vacation arrives,” he wrote his fiancée soon after he came to Montreal, “am I to go to New Zealand and fetch you to look after me and become Mrs. Professor? Or am 1 to wait to get enough cash to do it in style?”

He did it in style a year later, in 1900.

Their only child, Eileen, was born the next year. Mary Rutherford stayed in the background, but she became part of her husband’s scientific life as well as his private one. She typed all his manuscripts; she was a sounding-board for his ideas and observations. Until they left Montreal their home was always open to co-workers and students who were strangers in Canada. After dinner Rutherford liked to unbend with tall and stirring tales of pioneer days in New Zealand.

His conviviality at home didn’t stop him from pulling the academic rug out from under a fellow-professor when he got the chance. Walking across McGill campus one day he stopped the professor of geology.

“Adams,” he asked, “how old is the earth supposed to be?”

By various methods, the geologist told him, the earth’s age was then estimated at about a hundred million years. Rutherford had just finished investigating the decay chain of uranium. He’d found that lead was the end product, and by measuring the amount of lead and uranium in pitchblende ore he could make a fair estimate of the ore’s age.

“Adams,” he said, “I can prove that the piece of pitchblende I’m holding is seven hundred million years old.”

By the end of his third year at McGill Rutherford was ready to do to science in general what he had done to the geology professor—shoot a basic theory full of holes. His experiments had convinced him that every scientist since the Greeks, twenty-five hundred years before, had been making the same mistake.

The building-stone of the universe, science had always maintained, is the atom —a solid, indivisible, indestructible bit of fundamental matter. Rutherford proved the atom is as changeable as anything else. He demonstrated that a single element, thorium, was constantly going through a process of atomic change.

When Rutherford was sure of his ground he and his co-worker, Soddy, published their findings in the fall of 1902. Atoms, they said, are not hard substances. They’re “live particles, always breaking apart in the throes of creation.”

In other words they proved—in the case of thorium at least—that matter and energy are just different forms of the same thing. But there were still a few years to pass before Einstein proved the same point mathematically, and

meanwhile the eminent scientists of the day didn’t let this brash youngster upset the atomic apple-cart without a fight.

Rutherford defended his position with the same fire and enthusiasm he brought to every tussle with a stubborn experimental problem. At McGill there were a number of faculty members who thought the preposterous idea of selfshattering atoms would disgrace the university. The McGill Physics Society held an open meeting at which Rutherford was frankly criticized. Some urged him to proceed more cautiously and to delay publication of his findings.

Rutherford sat smoldering through most of the meeting. Finally he exploded. He began to recount the evidence and explain the conclusions but anger crept into his tone. Later he learned to retain scientific calm on all occasions: this time he was too hot under the collar to argue effectively. His associate. Cox, championed the new theory. Development of radioactivity would bring world-wide renown to McGill, Cox told the meeting. Further, he predicted. Rutherford’s work would some day he compared with Michael Faraday’s.

Cox was right on both counts.

Before Rutherford sailed for England and a post as head of the laboratory and research school at Manchester University in 1907 he finished his second book. Radioactive Transformations. Together with his first, published three years earlier under the title Radioactivity, it became the standard international authority in this field.

By 1912 his “nuclear theory,” with later additions by Niels Bohr, provided the diagram of an atom’s structure that is still a blackboard centrepiece in most high-school science classrooms: a hot central sun—the nucleus—surrounded by whirling satellites. At the end of World War 1 Rutherford used alpha particles as bullets to smash nitrogen atoms into oxygen; that is, to transmute elements as alchemists had once dreamed of doing. Before he was made Baron Rutherford of Nelson (a town near his birthplace in New Zealand) in 1931, he and his collaborators discovered protons and neutrons, two of the particles of energy that make up atoms. And before his death in 1937 at sixty-six Rutherford directed work on the first atomic accelerator—an atomic cannon that fired nuclear particles with force and accuracy.

These are the discoveries that pried the lid off atomic fission a few years later. On the record, the man who made them was brilliant. He drove himself at a “hectic” pace in the laboratory; he showed “scientific nerve” in reaching his conclusions, and he refused to knuckle under when they were attacked. Was he a genius?

That depends on the yardstick used to measure genius. But there may be a clue, under an earthier name, in a letter he wrote from McGill to a physicist in the U. S. At the time he was trying to nail down the identity of alpha particles: he was sure they were either helium or hydrogen. “Nothing but a pure scientific nose,” he wrote, “can say with certainty that one is more profitable. My nose leads me to avoid the hydrogen molecule like the devil.” Soon after he proved the particles were helium.

In the same letter he cautioned the other physicist on his line of scientific attack: ”. . . you seem bent on finding a mother for the two waifs cerium and lanthanum (rare earth elements),” he wrote. "Why not accept the chemists’ view of separate creation and rest happy?"

He was right again. He had a scientific nose, it