Tuesday 30 March 2010

So Eric Gill, Ernest Rutherford, and a Soviet physicist walk into a bar ....

I'm currently joyfully immersed in Mark Oliphant's Rutherford: Recollections of the Cambridge Days. Apparently I have turned into the kind of person who reads about particle accelerators over breakfast. I'm okay with that.

Having knocked off a bio of Marie Curie, Brian Cathcart's The Fly in the Cathedral (about the 1932 splitting of the atom under Rutherford's direction at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge) and Richard Reeves' short bio of Rutherford in recent weeks, I've now got sufficient grounding that I either recognise and at least semi-understand the scientific bits of the book, or can choose to let bits like this wash over me and then return to the story

Ratcliff was a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, where he had rooms. ... He was as fascinated as I was by questions of generation of a e.m.f in a circuit when either there was no change in flux through the circuit, or there was no cutting of lines of magnetic flux by a moving conductor, and invented a number of models to illustrate the duality of the problem.

Anyway. The seventh chapter of Oliphant's memoir is titled 'The Crocodile', and it's about a fascinating little slice of Rutherfordia that's touched on in the above books.

Pyotr Kapitsa (or Peter Kapitza, as he was known in Britain) was a Russian physicist who went to work under Rutherford at Cavendish Lab in 1921. Rutherford took a paternal interest in 'his boys', as he called his research students (Oliphant beautifully describes his use of the term as fond, with a touch of arrogance - Rutherford was well aware he spearheaded one of the most talented and productive groups of research scientists in the world) and he and Kapitsa appear to have been especially close.

As with many of his boys, Rutherford assisted Kapitsa by securing funding for his research*, and in the early 1930s a grant was obtained for a new building to house Kapitsa's work on magnetic fields, the Mond Laboratory.

Kapitsa designed the new building, and in recognition of Rutherford's patronage he commissioned Eric Gill (he tossed up between Gill and Jacob Epstein, who he considered to be "the leading sculptors in the modern school" in England) to produce a low-relief plaque featuring Rutherford's profile, and an engraving of a crocodile - Kapitsa's nickname for Rutherford - on the exterior of the building.

Gill rocked up in a brown monk's habit and completed the works under the cover of a tarpaulin. And then, as often happens with a public commission by a modern artist, uproar ensued. The crocodile seems to have been well received, but the plaque was seized upon by some members of the College, who felt the nose was too "Jewish".

Rutherford declined to take part in the following debates, wisely disavowing any ability to make judgements on modern art. Kapitsa wrote numerous letters to Gill, describing how he had had to "fight hard and give lectures on Modern Art and its meaning and explain such elementary things as the difference between a photographer and an artist" - to which Gill replied:

We had a visit from Hughes last week and he told us about the fracas over the Rutherford portrait. I am extremely sorry about it - especially, indeed practically only, because it has been such a nuisance for you. I am very grateful indeed for your championship. Hughes told me that it was all because some people, infected by the Hitler anti-Jew stunt, thought I'd given Rutherford a Jew's nose. Of course that's all nonsense. As I told Hughes, the striking feature of the Jew nose is not its bridge but its beak. A prominent bridge is rather Roman than Jewish, and these classical people ought to have been pleased. What a lot of frightful balls it is.

In the end, Rutherford advised Kapitsa to go to his colleague and friend, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and 'lover of modern art' for a deciding opinion. While Bohr had reservations about making a judgement based on photographs rather than an in-person viewing, his statement that the carving "looks to me most excellent, being at the same time thoughtful and powerful" helped Kapitsa win over the Building Syndicate (and, presumably, the gang of young men who'd threatened to hack the plaque off the building).

I can't find a copy of the plaque in question online, which makes me wonder if it has disappeared (I'd love to know). But the Crocodile is still flourishing

I think the thing I find so fascinating about this story is that I found it in a physicist's memoir; and not just a mention, but 13 pages, stuffed full of primary material. I love the idea that someone who hasn't really looked at art since high school (as I haven't really thought about physics since nearly flunking it in 6th form) could get accidentally immersed in a case study of British anti-Semitic feelings in 1930s Britain and disputes in modern art, when they thought they were meant to be reading about early work in nuclear physics. It's accidents like this - or fortuitous, marvellous overlaps - that delight me.

To finish off the story. In 1934 Kapitsa went to Russia to attend a conference, amongst other things; he had returned to Russia several times since 1926. However, on this 1934 visit his passport was confiscated, and he was told he must stay and work in Russia. Rutherford wrote, appealing 'in the interests of science' that Kapitsa be allowed to return to England; according to Rutherford's early biographer A.S. Eve "To this the Soviet Government made the sagacious and fair retort that of course England would like to have Kapitza, and that they, for their part, would equally like to have Rutherford in Russia!".

Eventually is was decided that the Russian government would purchase Kapitsa's experimental equipment from Cambridge, and that the Cavendish Laboratory would not compete with Kapitsa's new Institute for Physical Problems. Kapitsa wrote to Rutherford in 1936 (again, quoting from Eve):

After all we are only small particles of floating matter in a stream which we call Fate. All that we can manage is to deflect slightly our track and keep afloat - the stream governs us!

*Only ever modest amounts. Rutherford seems to have a horror of asking for or receiving large amounts of money, fearing that discharging the obligations incurred would begin to direct the research undertaken, rather than the problems themselves. In addition, he seemed to be attached to the rapidly becoming obsolete practice of table-top physics, roaring that he could do experiments in the Arctic if he had too.

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