The dark side of Rutherfordism

>> Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Between 1945 and 1992, the United States and the Soviet Union detonated dozens of atomic and/or nuclear weapons and amassed stockpiles of tens of thousands of these horrific devices. Two such devices were dropped on Japanese cities in the year 1945, with combined casualty tolls of up to 240,000 men, women and children. In the "Cold War" years that followed, millions lived in fear of a nuclear war that could end human life on Earth as we knew it; families built bomb shelters in their backyards and schoolchildren huddled under their desks. Even today, we live in fear that an atomic or nuclear device could fall into "the wrong hands," and although the likelihood of an all out atomic or nuclear war seems remote, even a single device detonated in a major city could kill millions of human beings and poison the surrounding environment for generations.

All of this is the result of the malign cultural influence of one man, Ernest Rutherford, First Baron Rutherford of Nelson. Somehow a frequently overlooked figure, it was Rutherford who, in 1911, and building on the wild speculations and hypotheses of others, proposed that all matter was not composed of the four traditional elements recognized since the days of ancient Greece, but rather was composed of tiny, discrete particles that might be further subdivided into even tinier, more discrete units. It was this far-fetched notion, arrived at without any sort of direct observation of the so-called "atoms" in action, that became known as "the atomic theory."

Or is the malign influence willfully suppressed? Is Rutherford's dire influence in causing thousands of deaths and creating a culture of fear the result of his dark legacy merely being overlooked, or is it possibly the result of a conspiracy of silence from a scientific community that wishes to suppress reasonable debate and differences of opinion about the basic structure of matter in the universe?

If one goes into any classroom in the country, one fails to find any reference at all to alternative explanations for the composition of matter. What's more, if Rutherford is mentioned at all, it's simply in connection with his "theory" of atoms and the blood on his hands or the influence he had on the American and Russian nuclear programs is not mentioned at all. The undeniable fact that there are those in the world who would happily apply Rutherford's ideas to a device designed to kill hundreds or thousands or even millions of people is conveniently obscured.

While barbarism has been going on for as long as there have been human beings, there was something different about the 20th century. The world had never seen anything quite like Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And it was not only a matter of the technology. Treating matter as bricks and mortar to be broken up by brute force was a new thing under the sun. The bombs that exploded in August 1945 were warm-up acts for the holocaust that could have occurred due to a misread radar display or misinterpreted border provocation.

The ideas of those who designed the atomic bomb and later the H-bomb came from a variety of sources, but no honest account will omit Rutherford--the men who built these engines of devastation certainly weren't reading Aristotle.

Rutherford elaborated a picture of how the world works, how matter is composed of particles orbiting other particles, thereby comprising a structure that could be broken up by interactions with other particles such as a stray neutron.

Albert Einstein, author of the "theories" of Relativity, did nothing more than translate Rutherford's pernicious conception of the structure of matter into mathematical terms for the binding energy that could be discharged when those subatomic structures were cracked apart. Describing a relationship between energy and mass that took the Rutherford model and posited that fracturing the atomic nucleus would release tremendous amounts of energy, Einstein simply took Rutherford's hideous work to the next horrible level, the possible extermination of the human species.

"Ideas have consequences," which is, come to think of it, another fact of history that tends to get lost, or suppressed, in discussions of atomic theory.

A picture of how the world works carries implications about how the world should work, must work. If morality is stitched into the fabric of reality--a fabric that can be shattered so easily according to Rutherford and his adherents--rather than being merely a useful fiction, then here is no observation about reality that has no moral consequences. That much the victims of atomic and nuclear weapons, over the past century and a half, have found out to their sorrow.

(I would like to thank my co-author, David Klinghoffer at the Huffington Post, for his invaluable assistance in writing this post. I can honestly say it wouldn't exist without his efforts. And to note that Fair Use provides a safe harbor for parody, while I'm at it. Teach the controversy, kids.)


Nathan Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 1:50:00 AM EDT  

I think you may be being a little rough on Rutherford and his so called "atom". If you go back a little further, you'll find Prometheus who STOLE fire from Zeus. Or maybe fire was actually discovered by some prehistoric sub-human/pre-human/proto-human/possibly stupid, but really lucky guy. Now that occurred during a time known as "pre-history".

So, you've got a choice of "crediting" fire to a "myth" or to "pre-history", both of which are just theories and therefore equally valid. The point is that suddenly, man could eat eggs in a solid form instead of sucking them out of holes in the shells or watching the contents just spill out into the dirt.

But if you look a little deeper, I think you'll find that, historically, "fire" has killed many more people than Rutherford's atom. Prometheus got his comeuppance, what with that eagle eating his liver every day and all. And the "unknown", possibly "imaginary" caveman probably burned his fingers before he got a proper handle on things.

But I say, neither of them deserved punishment. I say, you have to take the good with the bad. Fire = good. Burning to death = bad. If you look hard enough, you can find a downside to anything. Hell, I bet there are people who can find fault with beer. (OK, that's a stretch, but some people are just fanatics.)

I doubt Rutherford intended anything worse than Three Mile Island. Give the guy a break.
And yes...I shall have to revise my opinion of Darwin in favor of the always useful Godwin.

timb111 Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 3:32:00 PM EDT  

Eric & Nathan, you're both wrong. Sex causes the most deaths. If we were nver born we'd never die.

fatorb: that yellow thing in the sky

Dr. Phil (Physics) Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 4:59:00 PM EDT  

No, the real conspiracy is the failure to teach the truth about phlogiston and the genius of alchemy. Remember, Sir Isaac Newton himself was enamored of alchemy, so it must be right.

See also the most excellent short story "The World as We Know't" by Howard Waldrop, in the collection Howard Who? currently reprinted by Small Beer Press.

Dr. Phil

John the Scientist Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 8:09:00 PM EDT  

Oh, fudge, I still haven't gotten around to reviewing that fundamentalist treatise on this subject. I need to buy another book first, so I can cross-reference, becuase I don't traverse a pool of waist-deep horse shit without my hip waders. Thanks, Eric.

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