Rutherford’s legacy; its virtual and artistic versions

Connections to New Zealand and New Zealand physics

Lidia Smentek

Entrance to Rutherford’s Den, in Canterbury, NZ, where Rutherford did his early work before moving to England.
Courtesy: J. Campbell

Entrance to Rutherford’s Den, in Canterbury, NZ, where Rutherford did his early work before moving to England. The building was damaged during the February 2011 earthquake and aftershocks and may not reopen for some years.

2011 marks the 100th birthday of the Rutherford nuclear atom and the beginning of the nuclear era. Rutherford, a scientist born and educated in New Zealand, is known as the father of nuclear physics. To capture the spirit of this celebration, I interviewed Dr. John Campbell. Campbell a Research Associate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. He is a recognized authority on Rutherford, has written two books, "Rutherford Scientist Supreme" (AAS Publications, 1989) and "Rutherford’s Ancestors" (AAS Publications, 1996), is Producer of the documentary "Rutherford" and maintains a fascinating website

The interview documents the activities of one person, but involves many. I believe that this is a good example to follow in order to encourage the younger generation to understand and explore nature using scientific tools. The story told by John also sheds light upon our fellow physicists in New Zealand and their devotion to the mission of academia.

Lidia Smentek: Whose initiative was it to create such an extensive and impressive website devoted to everything possible that is or might be connected with Rutherford, including the clarification of existing false information?

John Campbell: Mine. I established the website so that information I had come across, and which was outside the scope of my books, could be made more available. For example, a section on honoring Rutherford gives the background to things named for him: a racehorse, craters on Mars and the Moon, medals, scholarships, a mineral, an element, a hotel, streets world-wide, a wine, a retirement home, a train, a mountain, etc.

The Rutherford birthplace with display panels in a garden setting.
Courtesy:J. Campbell

The Rutherford birthplace with display panels in a garden setting.

Smentek: On the first page of the website I found information about a documentary that will be released this year. Would you be willing to share some details about this project?

Campbell: It is absolutely amazing that there has never before been a documentary on Rutherford. The three-hour Rutherford Documentary, based on my book, has three episodes: (1)The Apprentice(Life, education, and research in New Zealand and at Cambridge until 1898, the early days of radioactivity); (2)The Alchemist (Canada and Manchester which includes his explaining radioactivity as natural transmutation of atoms and his dating of the age of the Earth, Nobel Prize, nuclear atom, World War 1 work, and splitting the atom); (3)The Statesman(Cambridge from 1919 until his death in 1937).

Smentek: What does it mean that it is a documentary? Is it a "dynamic" presentation (actors play various roles in accordance with your description), or static (just the documents, places, and memorabilia)? Are there dialogues between people, or does one person read the story

Campbell: A voiceover actor tells the story. There are interviews with many Rutherford associates and historians around the world, reconstructions with actors, artifacts, and animation of experiments. We had one filming trip to Canada, England and the U.S. to record still living interviewees and relevant sites, scenery, and artifacts.

Smentek: Which audience does the movie address?

Campbell: General, with this cut being aimed at school-teachers and senior pupils.

Smentek: What about its distribution?

Campbell: It is being given to all school-teachers of physics in New Zealand. The Principal Patrons have free use of it for any DVDs they gift. It will be on sale to others later this year. It will be offered to television worldwide.

Smentek: Why should we celebrate Rutherford’s genius today? Please talk about his legacy.

Campbell: We should be promoting Rutherford to school children anywhere on this basis. "Rutherford was raised and educated in rural New Zealand. He had fewer opportunities than you do today, yet look how far he went, through application and hard work." We should be promoting Rutherford to scientists, as an ideal example of a pure researcher, a leader of research, and a public spokesperson for science. We should be promoting Rutherford to administrators and politicians. He is the perfect example of pure research for its own sake. He knew applications would follow from any new fundamental discovery, in the same way that the discovery of the electron was undertaken for fundamental understanding, and not for the vast electronics industry that followed. I am reminded of Faraday’s comment on the then recent discovery of chlorine by Davy, "…in answer to those who are in the habit of saying to every new fact, ‘What is its use?’ Dr Franklin says to such, ‘What is the use of an infant?’ "

Smentek: What was it about Ernest Rutherford that sparked your interest to research him and write books?

Campbell: My involvement started in 1977 when the University of Canterbury finally shifted its last departments to its new suburban site and gifted the old Canterbury College site and buildings to the city for use as an arts center. The Arts Center Board wanted to see the site used fully and there was a basement room with a plaque outside saying this is where "Rutherford carried out his first scientific researches." The architect was going to great lengths to remove the paint from the walls and I thought that if I went into the College’s archives I would likely find an instruction to a painter to paint the walls. Instead I found letters to and from Rutherford that hadn’t seen the light of day. They showed that New Zealand couldn’t give an accurate account of its internationally most famous son and that there were three errors on the plaque outside the Den. That started me on research on Rutherford’s life and work in New Zealand and then overseas. That culminated in my books, my website, and now the documentary.

Smentek: At the website, going to Miscellaneous and then to Mythology, I found your description of Rutherford’s positive attitude towards women-scientists; this issue is still valid - would you please explain why you decided to present it on this site?

Campbell: Bodanis’ book, E = mc2 (A Berkeley Book, Penguin-Putnam, 2000) made the patently false claim "with women Rutherford was bluff and pretty much a thug" that lead to a headline in New Zealand "Scientist hero a sexist thug". I wrote a letter of rebuttal to the editor, cosigned by three other Rutherford scholars. This was submitted to Nature and Physics Today, which both declined, as they hadn’t reviewed the book. I should have written a fuller article, which I will get around to yet, but the website was a place to make the facts available.

Smentek: How will you, as a physicist from Canterbury University, observe the 100th anniversary of Rutherford’s model of the atom?

Campbell: I have done enough for Rutherford in New Zealand (books, talks, magazine and newspaper articles, birthplace, website, Pickering/Rutherford/Havelock memorial, documentary, etc.) so I will be celebrating at CERN where I will give an invited talk: "Rutherford’s Path to the Nuclear Atom.". New Zealand, as is typical, doesn’t have a celebration planned as far as I know. It should be pointed out that 2011 is designated the International Year of Chemistry, to celebrate the centennial of chemical societies forming the forerunner of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, and also to celebrate the centennial of Marie Curie’s second Nobel Prize. As soon as I heard of this early in 2010, I emailed to the international chemical societies and the International Year of Chemistry website to ask if it was merely an oversight that there was no mention of Rutherford’s nuclear atom, surely a cornerstone of chemistry. I received only one reply but there were no changes made to any of the websites.

Smentek: Are young people these days interested in Rutherford’s scientific achievements? Have schools contacted you through the Website to learn more about him and his work?

Campbell: Sure. I am helping school-children the world over with their homework. Besides questions on his work, there have been challenging questions such as "What was Rutherford’s favorite food?" (I could only point to his asking for seconds of scones dripping in butter during a visit to New Zealand.) "Did Rutherford discover anything on Valentine’s Day?" (Not that I know of.) Lazy demands such as "Please send me 1500 words on Rutherford by Friday when my assignment is due" get short shrift.

Smentek: From your books it is evident that Ernest Lord Rutherford of Nelson was proud of his roots; do you think he would be proud of the present achievements of New Zealand physics?

Historical reconstruction of the Master at work.
Historical reconstruction of the Master at work (display in the Rutherford Den prior to its replacement).

Campbell: When visiting New Zealand Rutherford often spoke in praise of research, especially in applied fields to support farming and industry. Today he would be impressed with much applied research in New Zealand. In 1925 he supported the formation of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, having been on the board of the British one. Whilst he would be impressed with much of the fundamental research in physics today, he would probably have the same comment now as he did then, that the university’s labs were under-funded and hence poorly equipped, and the staff isolated (though less so now with air-travel and email). He would also, I am sure, deplore the current view held by too many politicians and others that university research should only be in fields that will lead to new industries within the current election cycle.

Lidia Smentek retired after four decades at Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń, Poland) and is a Professor at Vanderbilt University.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.