Anyone Who Expects a Source of Power from the Transformation of These Atoms Is Talking Moonshine

Ernest Rutherford? Robert Millikan? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The experimental physicist Ernest Rutherford won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on radiation. Later his research group at the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge split the nucleus of an atom in a controlled manner. Yet, he doubted that atomic physics would produce a practical source of power, and he referred to such speculations as “talking moonshine”, i.e., talking foolishly. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: “The New York Times” printed an article with a dateline of September 11, 1933 that included a quotation from Lord Ernest Rutherford who was addressing a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The scientist’s words were carefully hedged. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Any one who says that with the means at present at our disposal and with our present knowledge we can utilize atomic energy is talking moonshine,” was the dictum of the famous head of the Cavendish Laboratory.

An article from the widely distributed Associated Press news service with the same dateline presented a different and more emphatic quotation: 2

Lord Rutherford discredited the theory that that immense power could be derived from the breakdown of the atom. “Energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing,” he said before the British association for the advancement of science. “Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine.”

QI does not know which of these two quotations is accurate. It is conceivable that he made both remarks at different times during his presentation. Yet, there is a third version which is given below; hence, uncertainty about his words seems to be unavoidable.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Before Rutherford made his comments above, a different winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics had expressed skepticism about atomic energy. In 1929 the periodical “Brooklyn Life” reported remarks delivered by Robert Millikan at the Biltmore Hotel in New York when he was a guest of honor of the Society of Arts and Sciences: 3

It seems there is nothing to it for he said: “There is no appreciable energy available to man through atomic disintegration” and no reason to live “in dread of the day when some unscrupulous or careless Dr. Faustus may touch off the stupendous sub-atomic powder magazine and blow this comfortable world of ours into star dust,” adding that “the Creator has realized the wisdom of introducing some fool-proof features into his machine.”

On September 11, 1933 Lord Ernest Rutherford addressed a meeting of British scientists as mentioned previously. On October 7, 1933 “The Calgary Daily Herald” of Alberta, Canada printed a dispatch from its London Bureau containing extended excerpts from Rutherford’s speech. In this version he referred to “cheap power”: 4

We may in these processes obtain very great quantities of energy, but on the average we cannot hope to obtain energy for practical use in this way. The bombardment of the atom is a very poor and inefficient way of producing energy and anyone who is looking for a source of cheap power in the transformation of the atom, is talking pure moonshine. We are not expecting anything of the kind. Some day the knowledge we may gain may be of practical value, but there is no indication of it yet.

In 1981 “The Book of Heroic Failures” by Stephen Pile placed an instance into a chapter titled “The Art of Being Wrong”: 5

‘The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine’ — Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937)
after he had split the atom for the first time.

In conclusion, Ernest Rutherford doubted that atomic manipulation would provide a viable source of energy as indicated in the 1933 citations. Unfortunately, the precise phrasing he used remains uncertain because there are at least three different versions of his statement. Physicist Robert Millikan also questioned the practicality of atomic energy as indicated in the 1929 citation.

Image Notes: Illustration of lithium atom from geralt at Pixabay. Portrait of Ernest Rutherford from the George Grantham Bain Collection available via the U.S. Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Chris whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1933 September 12, New York Times, Rutherford Cools Atom Energy Hope by Waldemar Kaempffert (Special Cable to The New York Times; Dateline September 11), Quote Page 1, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1933 September 11, The Lincoln Evening Journal (Lincoln Journal Star), Little Energy From Atom (Associated Press), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1929 March 2, Brooklyn Life and Activities of Long Island Society, As Seen by Herbert Henshaw, Start Page 6, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1933 October 7, The Calgary Daily Herald, Power Flow From Atoms Impossible by A. C. Cummings (Calgary Herald’s London Bureau), Quote Page 28, Column 1, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1981 Reprint (1979 First Publication), The Book of Heroic Failures: the Official Handbook of the Not Terribly Good Club Of Great Britain by Stephen Pile, Chapter: The Art of Being Wrong, Quote Page 216, Futura Publications, London. (Verified with scans)