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.