A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford by Richard Reeves

Richard Reeves is probably best known for writing biographies of American Presidents (Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan), so it’s a little strange to see him turn his hand to scientific biography. This is part of Norton’s “Great Discoveries” series (which inexplicably lacks a web page– get with the 21st century, already), though, so incongruous author-subject pairing is part of the point.

Some time back, there was a “meme” that went through the science side of blogdom asking people to post about their favorite historical scientist. I didn’t contribute, mostly because I didn’t really have a favorite historical scientist. If it came around again, though, I might well cite Rutherford. Prior to reading Reeves’s biography, I didn’t know much about Rutherford beyond a couple of choice quotes, but as portrayed here, he comes off as my kind of guy– famously loud and intense, well-loved by his students and colleagues, and considerably more humble and decent than you might expect from the “In science, there is only physics. All the rest is stamp collecting” quote.

Rutherford was born in the back end of nowhere in New Zealand, but showed evidence of genius from an early age, excelling at everything he tried. Some early work on wireless transmission of signals won him a scholarship to study in London, and once there, he quickly changed interests, joining J.J. Thomson at the Cavendish laboratory, and turning to the study of atomic and nuclear structure. By the time he was forty, he had completely revolutionized the understanding of the atom, and he continued to do ground-breaking science right up until his death at 67. He won a Nobel Prize in 1908 (ironically in Chemistry), and eleven of his students and post-docs went on to win Nobels of their own, which is an astonishing tally, even for that period in physics.

You always have to be a little cautious regarding biographies in which the author obviously really likes the person he’s writing about, and Reeves clearly has a good deal of affection for Rutherford. There’s really nothing negative about him in the book, and not even places where it’s obvious that he’s glossing over bad stuff. About the worst that is said is that Rutherford had an explosive temper, but every story of him blowing his stack is followed by a story of how he came back and apologized to whoever he yelled at.

This is a short book– only 177 pages– and a very quick read, thanks to Reeves’s charming and engaging prose. It jumps around in time a little, early on, but once Rutherford really hits his stride, it follows in a pretty linear fashion. It’s packed with amusing anecdotes and great stories of doing physics research in the early 20th century.

I hadn’t really appreciated just how important Rutherford was until reading this, but he was associated with a remarkable number of key discoveries, either directly or as the director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. He also did ground-breaking work on sonar during WWI, and was tremendously effective in helping to relocate Jewish scientists after the Nazis took power in Germany.

I mentioned to Kate that Rutherford’s desk was famously found to be radioactive, thanks to his habit of throwing sources in his coat pockets, and emptying them into a drawer at night. The book notes that while a similarly cavalier approach to radioactivity killed the Curies, Rutherford never showed any ill effects, and Kate commented “There’s a secret history begging to be written…” And it’s true– there’s probably a great Neal Stephenson “Baroque Cycle” type story to be written featuring Rutherford in place of Newton. Given the number of books featuring Einstein and Tesla, it’s a little surprising that he hasn’t shown up in a book– he’s got the outsize personality, the brilliant achievements, and unlike Tesla, he wasn’t batshit crazy. If you’re thinking of writing steampunk, check him out.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book. It’s a charming biography of a great physicist, and a good fun read. I’ll be buying a copy shortly after I give this one back to the library, and really, there’s not much higher praise I can offer.

11 thoughts on “A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford by Richard Reeves

  1. I don’t particularly like Rutherford for his arrogant statement “Science is either physics or stamp collecting”.

  2. As I said, he comes off as a much better person than the stamp collecting quote might lead you to expect. He certainly wasn’t shy about taking credit for his work, but he did a great deal to boost the careers of others, and was scrupulous about giving credit where it was due.

  3. Ages ago I heard a colloquium about Rutherford, a first person account of a former post doc who was an elderly emeritus prof by that time. It sounds like this book captured the man I heard about. BTW, Rutherford firmly believed in taking bike rides in the country to avoid the effects of radiation.

  4. I don’t particularly like Werpachowski for his arrogant statement “Sorry: tl;dr”. (Arrogant in that it assumes everyone should know all the same net acronyms he does, and that his audience isn’t worth typing a few extra characters for.)

  5. Henceforth, whenever something bores me to tears, I’m going to describe it as being “WERPACHOWSKI”.

    Werpachowski, you are tiresome.

  6. While it’s nice that you two crazy kids have found each other, just because you met here doesn’t mean you have to stay here. Take it somewhere else.

  7. Rutherford’s Physics or Stamp Collecting remark has never struck me as all that bad – arrogant and high handed, yes; but I always understood what he meant.

    Biology? A specialized branch of chemistry. Chemistry? A specialized branch of physics…

    Now that’s a reductionist mindset that would be extremely self limiting today, but in Rutherford’s time, I see it as egocentric but forgivable. He couldn’t have imagined the tools and techniques that would be available a century on. The “soft” sciences get harder and harder.

    I’ve read lots of little bits and pieces about the man, but never a full (if slender) biography.

    Maybe I’ll add it to the stack…

  8. Er, you needn’t have skipped the fact that his first experiments were done in Christchurch, where he did his undergraduate studies.

  9. Funnily enough, the departments of Chemistry and Physics and Astronomy share the Rutherford building at the University of Canterbury. Recently somebody put a sign saying simply ‘Stamp Collecting’ (with no explanation) on the Chemistry end of the building. Very amusing.

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