Lord Rutherford and his legacy in Russia: dedicated to the 150th anniversary of Ernest Rutherford’s birth

Some of the greatest achievements in the history of science are associated with the name of Ernest Rutherford. Today Rutherford, “the Father of Nuclear Physics”, symbolizes the values of the true scientist, such as originality of thinking, scientific intuition, bold imagination and the art of experiment.  For many of his Russian students Rutherford’s personal qualities, principles, values and leadership played a most important part in helping shape their civic position and moral values in the maelstrom that was the history of Russia and Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

This outstanding New Zealander was successful in attracting and nurturing many outstanding Russian students and visiting scholars in his laboratories, including several Nobel laureates. Among them were Georgy Antonoff, Wasily Borodowsky, Konstantin Yakovleff, Jadwiga Szmidt, Stanislaw Loria, Bohdan Szyszkowski, Stanisław Kalandyk, Nikolai Shilov, Pyotr Kapitsa, Yuli Khariton, Lev Landau, Georgy Gamow, Kirill Sinelnikov, and Aleksandr Leipunskii. He valued their originality, creativity and independent thought.

Rutherford raised the status of the Russian scientists by keeping them as a part of the world academic elite. He taught them how to stand for each other, be true to their scientific calling and to be true to themselves. His legacy was passed on by his Russian students to various of their students. They keenly promoted their mentor by translating his works and by following Rutherford’s scientific ideas and his thoughts on intellectual freedom. They created stamps and medals in honour of this great New Zealander. The portraits of Rutherford can still be found on the walls of most Russian physics classrooms, alongside with the portraits of Newton, Faraday and Mendeleev. 

Pyotr Kapitsa, who worked with Rutherford for 13 years in Cambridge, later a Nobel laureate, noted in his opening speech at the International Conference in honour of the 100th anniversary of Ernest Rutherford’s birth which was held in Russia in 1971: “People like Rutherford cease to be the national pride of the countries where they were born and where they worked – they become the pride of all mankind”.

\Olga Suvorova, Wellington

Based on the cultural research of Dr Olga Suvorova and her article “Rutherford and Russian Physics: The Critical Influence of the Human Factor” in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (2021). Note Dr Suvorova’s public talks this year on the topic: 25 July in Te Papa in Wellington and 31 August in Rutherford’s Den in Christchurch (more information on her website www.olgasuvorova.com).