"Up to Their Tricks Again": My New Favorite Physicist Story

From The Fly in the Cathedral, Brian Cathcart's history of the experiments that led up to the splitting of lithium nuclei by accelerated protons in the Cavendish Laboratory in 1932. One of the incidents along the way was the discovery of the neutron by James Chadwick, also in 1932. In describing Chadwick, who was Ernest Rutherford's assistant director in the years in question, Cathcart writes:

Chadwick's diffidence was familiar to all the students. [Thomas] Allibone was only one of several to describe taking a problem to the assistant director, explaining it at length and then leaving his office without any confidence that the man had even been listening. Sometimes he would say a crisp 'yes', but without indicating whether this signified agreement or merely that he had heard what was said. This lack of engagement could be frustrating, and it could beamusing. Later in life Chadwick would run a department of his own at Liverpool University and a story was told of him descending to a workroom there in search of a particular student, whom he found helpless on the floor with the edges of his overalls neatly nailed to the boards beneath. Chadwick leant over him, elicited the answer to the question he had come to ask and withdrew. Only when he had regained his office did he mutter casually to his secretary that 'the boys have been up to their tricks again'.

That might be even better than the story of Dirac responding "That wasn't a question, it was a comment" in response to an audience member saying "I didn't understand the equation on the board right there." It's hard to imagine what the student's reaction could've been.

Cathcart cites another book, which I'll make a note of, but I'm not allowed to read any more tangential history books until I finish revising this manuscript, dammit.

(For the record, the Cathcart book is a fun read; not actually necessary for what I'm working on, but I've become a big fan of Rutherford, and it's got lots of great little details about life in the Cavendish when he was running the place.

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I heard a great story about Rutherford recommending time out in the country for the fresh air, to counteract the radioactivity they were all exposed to.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 18 Dec 2013 #permalink

Rutherford apparently had a habit of putting radioactive sources in his pocket, then dumping them in a desk drawer at the end of the day. When... McGill, I think it was, wanted to put his desk on display, they had to spend a fortune decontaminating it.

The one who was really amazing is Marie Curie. The stuff she and Pierre did to isolate radium was just insane, under horrible conditions. And she just kept on keeping on for years while her lab assistants got sick; one source I read said that the Radium Institute lagged behind others in instituting radioactive safety procedures, probably because she was basically unkillable, and didn't see any need.

Hardy Polish ancestry, baby.

one source I read said that the Radium Institute lagged behind others in instituting radioactive safety procedures, probably because she was basically unkillable, and didn’t see any need.

Except that, according to Wikipedia, it eventually did kill her, and she had had various health problems prior to her death. The Wikipedia article also claims that Mme. Curie had a habit similar to Rutherford's of transporting sources in her pocket and storing them in a desk drawer.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Dec 2013 #permalink

The radiation eventually killed her, and she had some health problems, but whichever of the big pile of sources this was pointed out that it killed and sickened a whole bunch of more junior people more quickly. Also her husband, for that matter-- the description of the radiation poisoning symptoms Pierre was showing before his death in a traffic accident are pretty disturbing, but she held up a lot better. She was a tough cookie, in a lot of ways.