Winning Bronze

Sir Robert “Bob” Jones is New Zealand’s answer to Donald Trump; a wealthy property investor with a sideline as an internet and old-media troll, albeit with a better barber than The Donald. In yesterday’s Herald Jones shares his opinions on which New Zealanders merit a bronze statue, and the list is very short. By Jones’s reckoning, the only truly great New Zealander is Sir Edmund Hillary, who conquered Everest, crossed the Antarctic and then devoted his later life to building schools and hospitals in Nepal.

Scientists will be pained to see that Jones wrote off physicist Ernest Rutherford’s claim to greatness:

Ernest Rutherford, who’s on our $100 banknotes […] is unknown beyond the physics world, his accomplishments being largely a team effort.

Jones is dead wrong here. It was Rutherford who figured out that atoms have a central nucleus and a cloud of electrons, one of the biggest discoveries in human history. And while Rutherford led a decent-sized team of scientists at Cambridge, it was a small crew compared to the 400 people in the 1953 Everest expedition that put Hillary on top of Everest.

Earlier in his career, Rutherford was based at McGill University, in Montreal. While he was in Canada, Rutherford showed that radioactivity leads to the transmutation of one chemical element into another, as close as nature gets to the dreams of the alchemists. I visited McGill in the Fall of 2011, and made a small pilgrimage to the Rutherford museum inside its Department of Physics, which contains much of Rutherford’s experimental apparatus. Looking at my photos from that trip, “huge team” is not the first phrase that springs to mind.

If physicists get an afterlife, Rutherford will no doubt be smiling at Jones’s comments: he had little time for people pretending to know more than they actually do. And on the bright side, Jones sees more $100 bills than most of us, so he will have plenty of opportunities to reflect on our famous compatriot.

In fact, Rutherford is already immortalised in bronze, near his childhood home of Brightwater – apparently Jones was not asked for permission. (And, if a “scientist as kid” statue-meme went viral, I would not be at all unhappy.)



Rutherford died at Cambridge and is buried in Westminster Abbey a few yards from Isaac Newton; a much rarer honour than a mere Nobel. Given that Rutherford showed us so much about how the world really works, Christopher Wren’s famous epitaph – si monumentum requiris circumspice – might also serve for Rutherford:

If you seek his monument, look around you.