Ernest Rutherford

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George Schmermund
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Ernest Rutherford

Post by George Schmermund » Sun Feb 14, 2010 4:40 am

I've just finished a biography of Ernest Rutherford written by David Wilson. It's a semi-formidable tome of 600+ pages and somewhat tedious for me because the author is British. I spent a lot of time with the dictionary close at hand. This may have added considerably to the reading time, but the crop of new words was well worth it. I'll try some of them out on you guys as the need fits.

As an illustration of just one of the astonishing revelations presented:

". . . In accordance with the Rutherford tradition, most students went first to the training course in radioactive methods, the nursery, up in the attic of the Cavendish. And just as in the Manchester days, most beginners worked with radon sources in small glass capsules "precariously sealed off". Devons recalls that he "was strongly advised not to get the stuff on my skin or in my lungs". But he was even more strongly warned against contaminating the laboratory and ruining other people’s experiments, and it seems that the precaution of wearing rubber gloves, washing hands and changing coats was aimed more against contamination of the laboratory than of the person: " Inside the radium sanctuary itself (the tower room at the top of the lab) the residual activity was so high from contamination everywhere and from the residues of innumerable sources of the past that it was difficult to charge up the gold-leaf electroscope for long enough to measure, even roughly, the strength of a newly prepared source of some 100 millicuries."

"It throws our present-day concern with the slightest threat of radioactivity into some perspective to read that Devons regularly walked about with radioactive sources contained in no more that a glass tube with a rubber bung in his pocket, and he adds, "Nor was I myself unduly alarmed when, shortly after a visit to the Tower (where I spent a couple of hours each day) I found that by simply blowing on a Geiger counter its register would rattle furiously or completely choke in an attempt to record the activity. After a day or two of radioactive abstinence my breath always returned to normal."

This is an anecdote from Sam Devons. He lived to be 92! This is not an isolated situation. Remember that all the other students were in the same labs, some for many years.

Here's my favorite quote from the book "I am sorry for the poor fellows who haven't got a lab to work in." E. Rutherford.
Anything obvious in high vacuum is probably wrong.

John Futter
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Re: Ernest Rutherford

Post by John Futter » Sun Feb 14, 2010 5:21 am

you can add Madam Curie to your list
Ernest was from New Zealand and in such one of our universities in NZ was heavily into Radium. Radium salts dissolved in acid were being investigated ---- oops a few spills-- strange illnesses ---- cover up -----lead lined offices after clean up---- most furniture and bench tops from lab buried in landfill---- but one cupboard unit--- its in my garage with fading alpha count values scribbled on it---- yes its still hot but not as hot as my small collection of WW2 aircraft instruments.

If you want another good book to read
A Fly in the Cathedral
a treatise on Cockcroft and Waltons work in Ernest's lab -- a riveting read

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Richard Hull
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Re: Ernest Rutherford

Post by Richard Hull » Tue Feb 16, 2010 4:01 pm

Somewhat clumsy, Rutherford would break more than one radon ampoule, himself, and raising the hackles of Geiger on more than one occasion. Rutherford once carried a radium vial on a train in his vest pocket and suffered minor beta burns that, while painful for a day or two, went away shortly, much in the same manner as a localized sunburn.

Eve's biography is the classic work on Rutherford, written shortly after his death by his friend who worked with him.

Richard Hull
Progress may have been a good thing once, but it just went on too long. - Yogi Berra
Fusion is the energy of the future....and it always will be
Retired now...Doing only what I want and not what I should...every day is a saturday.

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Doug Coulter
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Re: Ernest Rutherford

Post by Doug Coulter » Tue Feb 16, 2010 11:46 pm

Physics today from November 1996 has an interesting article on the Russian bomb efforts where some of the folks who were involved and some Americans gave papers at a joint conference. Attending was one of the chemist lab grunts whose job it had been to wipe Pu oxide off the rafters from the frequent fire accidents they had with the stuff when trying to work with it -- it would catch fire on the machines etc. She lived to the present time, but many many people did not under the very same conditions, and quite a few died either there, or in Siberia later where most of the workers were sent to ensure secrecy.

So, while not a namby-pamby about this stuff -- there are some very hot sources sitting on my bench just now, including some that will choke any geiger counter quick (5 lbs torbermite), it's not something to ignore, just to note that some people are somehow a *lot* luckier than others. I can scan the article if someone wants me to (but the cool stuff is basically the entire issue which describes both countries work from the start to the then-present). So if you can get your hands on a copy, it's worth it.

The upshot, is that one anecdote or a few aren't statistics (and I subscribe to what Sam Clemens said about statistics, at that). Most people die or get sick at some point, some don't. The idea is to not be in the former class, and there's no way to know ahead of time.

I have lived through a 200mph+ auto accident, and have survived a rifle shot to the head. Does that make it a good idea for you to try them? I am lucky, are you?
Why guess when you can know? Measure!

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Re: Ernest Rutherford

Post by AFW » Thu Sep 09, 2010 9:42 pm

Another famous quote from Rutherford:
" All Science is either Physics or Stamp - collecting"
- a bit ironic that he got the Nobel for Chemistry.

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Chris Bradley
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Re: Ernest Rutherford

Post by Chris Bradley » Thu Sep 09, 2010 10:25 pm

Anthony Webb wrote:
> Another famous quote from Rutherford:
> " All Science is either Physics or Stamp - collecting"
> - a bit ironic that he got the Nobel for Chemistry.
> Tony

For a chemist, I guess that makes him a self-admitted stamp-collector?

Linda Haile
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Re: Ernest Rutherford

Post by Linda Haile » Thu Sep 09, 2010 10:42 pm

As the saying goes, 'philately will get you no-where'.

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