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.

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

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)