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Carmarthen Cameos – 6 (Books: Peter Kapitsa on Life and Science)

We’ve got an enormous home library in Moscow, which contains many rare editions of Russian classical authors, 19th c. books, revolutionary newspapers, and the Large Soviet Encyclopedia. The library has grown at least twice since 1997, once I went to the University. For the biggest part it consists of reference books, poetry, and prose. There are history books in the collection, of course, but their quantity is nowhere near the number of literary works.

A large number of books are crowding in my current abode, and going to Carmarthen helped to add a few more: a collection of Sir T. S. Eliot’s poems; a book about Dylan Thomas; an edition of (nearly) all major novels by W. S. Maugham; a collection of writings by Peter Kapitsa, a Russian physicist; and the 29th (1867) edition of Art Journal.

Peter Kapitsa on Life and Science: Addresses and Essays by Albert Parry was the first publication of Kapitsa’s non-technical speeches and writings and was aimed at American readers, introducing to them ‘one of the great minds of our century’. In addition to Kapitsa’s speeches and addresses, the collection includes ‘two highly revealing interviews, through which run two main currents: his concern that Russia’s students specialize too much, without the broadening interest in general science that would make them truly well-versed scientists or engineers; and his fear that even when they turn out to be well-rounded experts in science and engineering, they shun a deep-enough acquaintance with the world’s art and humanities, and thus cannot be true leaders of tomorrow’. From my experience at the Moscow State University, these concerns and fears have been taken on board, and a good proof may be that many members of the MSU’s Grand Choir are students and teachers of the Sciences. I find this book interesting to read also because my grandmother’s cousin, a professor of Physics herself at the MSU, was blessed with the chance to work with Peter (Pyotr) Kapitsa and, in particular, to travel to England.

Three of the essays are Kapitsa’s reminiscences of Ernest Rutherford, whose genius had once shone at the University of Manchester, where he was the Chair of Physics between 1907 and 1919. Under his tuition in Manchester studied and worked, among others, Niels Bohr and Hans Geiger. Kapitsa, subsequently a 1978 Nobel Prize Winner himself, came to Cambridge in 1921, to work on the project that had already been initiated by Rutherford and Geiger. Kapitsa writes affectionately and with respect about Rutherford in the letters to his mother. When he’d only just started his work in 1921, he was worried ‘about my work in Cambridge, how it will go, just how well I will be able to work with Rutherford, what with my weak knowledge of the English language and my rather crude manners’. Kapitsa was indeed concerned about his English, and soon upon arriving and settling in Cambridge he wrote: ‘My feeble knowledge of the language hampers me in the expression of my ideas’ (p. 123). Nevertheless, it is the outstanding talent and devotion to work that earned Kapitsa Rutherford’s sincere respect. Within a few months of beginning to work at the Cavendish Laboratory Kapitsa was given a room of his own – ‘this is a big honour here’ (p. 126), he says.
Rutherford was a man of ‘kind of charm, although at times he is rude’ (p. 124), Kapitsa wrote after his first scientific conversation with his tutor. A few months later he noted:

Rutherford is increasingly pleasant to me. He greets me with a bow when he sees me and inquires about the progress of my research. But I’m a little afraid of him. I work practically next to his study. This is bad, since I must be careful about my smoking: should he see that pipe in my mouth, there would be trouble. But thank God, he is heavy-footed, and I can tell his steps from those of others…‘ (p. 125).

From the start of his work at Cambridge Kapitsa had been calling Rutherford “Crocodile”. As Parry explains in the Introduction, this was ‘”a symbol of Rutherford’s scientific acumen and career”, because “this animal never turns back” but always pushes forward; “the crocodile is regarded in Russia with mingled awe and admiration”‘ (P. 8). This can also be reinterpreted to mark some of Rutherford’s personal traits. ‘Rutherford is satisfied’, writes Kapitsa, this can be seen in his attitude toward me. He always says friendly things to me when he meets me. But… when he is displeased, hold onto your seat. He will cuss you out the worst way ever. But what an astonishing cranium! His mind is absolutely unique: a colossal sensitivity, intuition. I have never been able to imagine anything like it in existence. He states his subject very lucidly. He is a completely extraordinary physicist and a very singular personality…’ (pp. 125-126). In 1922, Kapitsa once again noted Rutherford’s ‘devilish intuition’: ‘Ehrenfest in his latest letter to me calls him simply a god. It’s very amusing here: if the Professor is pleasant to you, everyone else in the laboratory is affected – they also become attentive to you… I am not timid, but I lose my nerve before him…’ (p. 129).

As awe-inspiring as he was, Rutherford was honest and generous to his students. ‘Once, in a frank conversation with me, Rutherford said that the main thing for a teacher to learn was not to envy his students’ successes, and he confessed: “How difficult this becomes with the years!” This profound truth made a bid impression on me. The teacher’s uttermost quality should be generosity. Doubtless Rutherford could be generous. This apparently was the chief secret behind the fact that so many prominent scientists came out of his laboratory – that it was always possible to work freely and well in his laboratory, in its good businesslike atmosphere’ (p. 111). Rutherford was also gregarious, and Kapitsa writes about a dinner of the Cavendish Physics Society in December of 1921, when ‘after the toasts, all present mounted their chairs, held hands in a crisscross manner, and sang a song in which they recalled all their friends… It was very amusing to see such world-famous men as J. J. Thompson and Rutherford standing on chairs and singing at the top of their voices…’ (p. 127).

Ernest Rutherford and Pyotr Kapitsa biographies at NobelPrize.org.
Ernest Rutherford – Scientist Supreme – the website created and maintained by John Campbell, author of Rutherford Scientist Supreme (Christchurch, New Zealand, 1999).
It is striking, but upon a consultation of COPAC website, it seems that Peter Kapitsa on Life and Science: Addresses and Essays (collected, translated and annotated with an introduction by Albert Parry) (The Macmillan Company, 1968) is held in but three British libraries: at Nottingham, Aberdeen, and London. It is available on Amazon, so if you’re interested, this may be the place to visit.

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