The importance of being Ernest – our royal society is using him to inspire youngsters to redesign our $100 bank note

As I observed in an article posted on the  AgScience blog earlier today, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ernest Rutherford, New Zealand’s most celebrated scientist and the country’s first Nobel laureate, was noted by RNZ, and by some newspapers and universities.

On RNZ’s Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, the programme host talked about Lord Rutherford with  Professor David Hutchison, the director of the Dodd Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies.

Stuff featured an article by Nelson reporter Tim Newman under the headline Ernest Rutherford: From humble beginnings to New Zealand’s greatest scientist

This referenced an obituary in the New York Times on October 20, 1937, which described Lord Rutherford as one of the few men to reach “immortality and Olympian rank” during his own lifetime.

“In a generation that witnessed one of the greatest revolutions in the entire history of science he was universally acknowledged as the leading explorer of the vast infinitely complex universe within the atom, a universe that he was first to penetrate.”

The University of Auckland – on its website – reproduced an article by Professor Richard Easther, head of physics at the Faculty of Science, which he had written for Newsroom under the heading Happy birthday, Ernest Rutherford.

Curiously, the article carried something that looks like a disclaimer to distance university bosses from its top physicist:

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

We are not too sure which bits of the article might cause offence on the university’s campus – saying anything these days is apt to be fraught –  but he used the word “colonial”. 

If you guessed that as a student Rutherford was a colonial rough diamond let loose in late-Victorian Cambridge you would be right. He was subject to the predictable resentments and exclusions that followed from this status, even if his sheer brilliance tipped the scales back in his favour. 

Hmm.  Rutherford is being admired in this article as a brilliant colonial. This could be harrowing reading for modern-day students – and (alas) too many modern-day lecturers as well.  

More to the point of Rutherford’s esteem in the world of science, Easther wrote:

New Zealanders talk about “tall poppy syndrome”, where we cut down successful individuals for daring to rise above the rest of the field. But we also stretch some poppies to their limits, as seen in our love of Olympic medal tables computed on a per capita basis. Consequently, growing up with a passion for science I was never certain whether Rutherford was fully famous or just a local lad made good. I shouldn’t have doubted. Nobel Prizes are awarded every year but insights like “the world is made of atoms” and that “atoms are built from smaller, simpler objects” may arrive only once a century, and Rutherford has a big share of both breakthroughs.

Easther noted that Rutherford rose to the pinnacle of British science as president of the Royal Society in the 1920s.

Wow.  President of the Royal Society, eh!

Does this mean he rates highly with this country’s equivalent of that august body?

I thought so.

But I could find no mention of the 150th anniversary of the great man’s birthday on the Royal Society of New Zealand website when I looked yesterday.

Fair to say, the society has not overlooked the date.

On its Facebook page it drew attention to a design competition for students in Years 1-13.

It is a measure of the place of physics in this country’s science community, however, that the challenge is not to encourage young physicists.  It is to design a $100 bill “showing us what you know, or what you have learnt, about Ernest Rutherford”.

The society had announced the competition earlier this month.  

Nowadays it communicates with society members and the public using a cumbersome hybrid of English and Te Reo.  

Rā Whanāu Rutherford #150

Join us in celebrating Sir Ernest Rutherford‘s 150th anniversary!

A $100 prize is up for grabs and the winning design will be shared across the society’s social media channels.

Design competition: Ko wai a Rutherford? Who is Rutherford?

Who is that on Aotearoa New Zealand’s $100 bill? It’s Ernest Rutherford – the very first kairangahau (researcher) in nuclear physics. Born in Nelson, this Hereturikōkā August marks 150 years since his birth. Celebrate with us by learning about who he was, what he did, and his incredible impact on the world today!

If you are a tauira (student) in Years 1-13, we are launching a competition for you to design your own $100 bill showing us what you know, or what you have learnt, about Ernest Rutherford.

You could win $100 AND have your design shared across Royal Society Te Apārangi’s social media channels.

Depending on COVID-19 Alert Level restrictions, winning designs may also be featured on our billboard in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.

Without Rutherford’s discoveries, the world would look very different today! That fire alarm in your whare (house) that protects you from ahi (fire) was invented thanks to Rutherford. Have you learned about the periodic table of elements? Rutherford discovered Radon – one of those elements! 

So what were his other contributions? You show us!

The competition opened yesterday and closes on 30 September.

Alongside a video competition celebrating his impact on science and society today, the Facebook page  shares 150 facts on Lord Rutherford to celebrate his 150th.


One thought on “The importance of being Ernest – our royal society is using him to inspire youngsters to redesign our $100 bank note

  1. “very first kairangahau (researcher) in nuclear physics” ~ aren’t the Royal Society of NZ being presumptuous here? This seems like a racist colonial construct. Some Maori [plural] may have plenty of time on their hands to investigate these matters on the voyage to Antarctica.

    Liked by 1 person

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