Friday, December 23, 2011

Advent calendar #23: Moonshine in Rutherford's brain

Ernest Rutherford is known for his achievements in atomic and nuclear physics, most essentially the insight that the mass of the atom is concentrated in a small nucleus. This is known today as the Rutherford model of the atom, and was experimentally shown by scattering alpha particles on gold. Rutherford won the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1908 for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances.

In 1933, he gave a talk at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, from which he was quoted in The London Times of September 12, 1933 about the possibility of energy-efficient nuclear fission as follows:

We might in these processes obtain very much more energy than the proton supplied, but on the average we could not expect to obtain energy in this way. It was a very poor and inefficient way of producing energy, and anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the atoms was talking moonshine. But the subject was scientifically interesting because it gave insight into the atoms.

The 16 September 1933 issue of Nature tells its readers about the talk:

One timely word of warning was issued to those who look for sources of power in atomic transmutations ‒ such expecations are the merest moonshine.

It is easy to invoke this statement as a further example for a severe scientific misjudgement by a senior scientist. But in context, it was perfectly reasonable: Rutherford was discussing nuclear reactions tiggered by the proton beam from the then brand-new accelerator of Cockroft and Walton. Trying to gain nuclear energy that way is about as efficient as producing antimatter at CERN to fuel a matter-antimatter-annihilation engine.

Moreover, in his paper Atomic Energy is "Moonshine": What did Rutherford Really Mean?, historian of science John G. Jenkin argues that Rutherford was well aware that there might be ways to harness nuclear energy, especially using neutrons as tools to induce reactions. He suggests that Rutherford "in all of his later negative pronouncements regarding the possibility of atomic energy, was adopting a quite deliberate policy to disguise and postpone, for as long as possible, the awful prospect that he saw looming over the horizon: a new and dreadful war, a new and devastating weapon, and unprecedented destruction."

On a lighter side, Rutherford also allegedly warned (quoted for example in "The Strangest Man: The hidden life of Paul Dirac" by Graham Farmelo):
"Don't let me catch anyone talking about the universe in my department!"

and said about special relativity (quoted for example in "The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige" by Burton Feldman):
"Oh, that stuff. We never bother with that in our work."

Though I am not sure about the origin of this latter quotation.

Rutherford was reportedly skeptic about special relativity in its early days, and for most of atomic physics it can be safely neglected and one does indeed not have to bother. But when in 1930 he prepared a new and updated edition of his book "Radiation from Radioactive Substances", he did add a discussion of the mass defect based on E = mc².


  1. Back in November, when I asked you abount this year's advent series, I didn't think you're gonna make it on such a short notice.

    It was pleasure to read it, thanks ;)

    And have a great Christmas time!

  2. Well, thanks for the reminder. You too, have a merry Christmas. Best,


  3. "the awful prospect that he saw looming over the horizon: a new and dreadful war, a new and devastating weapon, and unprecedented destruction"

    I don't think so; the vast majority of scientists are too ambitious and scientific driven to suppress a huge discovery for such concerns (but maybe Rutherford was an exception).

    Moreover if that was true then the scientists of Manhattan project would look kind of immoral according to Rutherford standards which I don't think is the case.

  4. Rutherford's moonshine dictum bothered Leo Szilard. Szilard was waiting for a Southampton Row, London traffic light to change in late 1933. Before the light, he was thinking about neutrons. Then, the world changed - Szilard conceptualized a chain reaction using uncharged particles inert to a nucleus' electrostatic barrier.

    The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes, pp. 27-28.

    (Had Szilard hallucinated superluminal neutrinos, we might have a bomb that detonates before it is constructed, tremendously saving costs. Thiotimoline, OTOH, is obviously silly.)

  5. Wiki gives these two quotes, from Rutherford:

    "All science is either physics or stamp collecting" (though he was in 1908 awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

    "We haven't the money, so we've got to think."

  6. Hi Bee & Stefan,

    So although everyone is concerned with whether Rutherford was being truthful, which I think might remain as somewhat uncertain, I am fairly confident he was indeed Ernest:-)

    Merry Christmas,



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