Clever Rutherford

I studied at Manchester University, and one day walking around the University with a student who came from Pakistan to Manchester in order to study Physics,  my companion said, pointing, “that is the building where Rutherford split the atom”. I never knew that. The building to which that my friend pointed was not in any way remarkable from the outside. But then I suppose that the most remarkable feats are performed by often  people whose appearance is not in the least remarkable, in the most unremarkable places. I do not claim to be remarkable, but some of my best thinking is done in my bath and in my bed.

Some fifty years prior to this conversation, In 1917, in that unremarkable building, Rutherford managed to split the atom in a nuclear reaction between nitrogen and alpha particles. In doing so he discovered a subatomic particle with a positive electric charge (I hope that I have got the physics right) which he modestly called the proton, rather than the Rutherford. The importance of his work was recognised by the scientific community and Rutherford was weaned away from Manchester to the more impressive architecture of Cambridge.

Working in impressive surroundings gives almost everyone (including and starting with those that work in such places) that those who work there are better, more gifted, cleverer than those who do not work in the ancient halls and palaces. Rutherford did his most important work in a relatively shabby building in what was then an industrial, smoky town.  He opened the bottle and let the nuclear genie out, or at least he identified the bottle where the nuclear genie lay hidden and loosened its top.

He was a clever man, was Rutherford, who did remarkably clever work in an unremarkable building in the Middle of Manchester but he was not clever enough to know how to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. Perhaps he was not clever enough to know or foresee that there are some thoughts and some ideas better left unspoken and some genies who when they are released make very unsatisfactory servants.

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