Not in my department

[Ernest] Rutherford was outgoing, down to earth, given to volcanic temper tantrums and dismissive of grandoise theorising.  "Don't let me catch anyone talking about the universe in my department," he growled.

That is from Graham Farmelow's excellent new book The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Physicist.  This isbook  one of my two must-read biographies of this year, the other being the book on Garcia Marquez.


The psychologist Liam Hudson had a fascinating account of Rutherford, using him as proof of the theory that what you need for success in science is not necessarily top grades but a patient curiosity and a practical knack for formulating solveable problems. "Dismissive of grandiose theorising" might come with the territory.

I read Hudson about 25 years ago; can't find a ref right now but he was very good on the mysteries of creative careers. DK if he ever said anything about Dirac.

Rutherford liked to tour the labs at 6:00 pm and send people home - if you've not solved today's problem by six o'clock, you need to go home and think about it.

P.S. I ran across Hudson 35 years ago - his work was derivative and his character was such that a frank description would have exposed me to the English libel laws.

After the glowing reviews, I eagerly checked out the Dirac biography, but I came away disappointed. The physics was not explained clearly enough for this layman to understand and enjoy. The anecdotes regarding Dirac's behavior are obviously great and probably the main selling point for the book.

Rutherford was a New Zealander who lived most
of his life in Cambridge (England). Genuises
who come from one country and live in
another sometimes develop unusual perspectives.
A man who spent his life looking into and doing
things with atoms may well be skeptical
of talk of the universe.

Farmelo, not Farmelow

It is also said that Rutherford "died of fame". A strangulated hernia got him, and all because he had to be treated by someone from Harley St, who took a while to get to Cambridge.

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