The big bang theory

One of the more difficult radios to install in our exhibition, Sounds Like Us, was the atom radio.  I guess that is appropriate, dealing as it does with the achievement of New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, who as everyone knows, split the atom.

While people who know something about science may have recognised the radio was in the shape of an atom, younger visitors to the exhibition might have recognised the design as a reoccurring motif in the comedy series, The Big Bang Theory.

For those who haven’t seen the series, it revolves around a group of friends who are scientists (and one engineer!) and their partners, plus Penny a very pretty, but dim, ex-waitress.

One of the characters is Dr Sheldon Cooper, who takes great delight in correcting or educating his friends, especially Penny.

While Sheldon’s pedantry is always a cause of annoyance and frustration for those he meets, quite often you end up learning something quite interesting.

Sometimes, I can relate to Penny’s plight, as some of the jokes on the show require you to have some understanding of science.  Luckily, I often watch episodes with someone who can understand all their jibber jabber and quite useful conversations can result.

1 Friends of the Rutherfords, the Andrew sisters..png

Split infinitives

On one such occasion Rutherford, and his internationally important experiment, was fleetingly referred to on Big Bang Theory. My companion just happened to state, ‘Of course you know he didn’t actually split the atom?’

That was news to me, although I must admit I never really thought about it in depth.

It transpires that what he did, in layman’s terms, was knock a proton (a name he invented) out of the nucleus of an atom. If, like me and Penny, you find that hard to understand, it has been likened to playing marbles, and using a bomber to knock a smaller marble out of the circle.

Actually two of Rutherford’s protégés, both Irishmen, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, finally succeeded in splitting the atom much later than Rutherford’s 1917 effort.

However, Rutherford’s understanding of the atom and its potential, led the way for a number of scientists to explore the intricacies of the world we live in.

Much has been written about Ernest’s achievements: his scholarships and awards, his work at McGill and later Cambridge Universities and his Nobel Prize in 1908.

2 Ernest as a young boy, not much like the man on our.jpg

Split decisions

Less is written about his earlier work in such fields as investigating X-rays and electromagnetism; a field that Ashburton man, Stanley McCallum, also played an important role in advancing. Almost nothing, however, is written in detail about his early life. This, I think, is a great shame, as it highlights what was the focus of the exhibition – the ‘can do’, or ‘why not?’ attitude of Kiwis.

Ernest was one of 12 children born to an average couple in Spring Grove, near Nelson.  Not from a rich family, he developed a motto early on in his life of, “We haven’t the money so we have to think.”

His father was a wheelwright and later a flax miller in Brightwater, his mother, a teacher. Both his parents encouraged their children to think. His mother is reported as espousing the belief that ‘all knowledge is power’.

3 Local physicist Stanley McCallum.png

Like many kiwis who have ‘made it’, Ernest never doubted that a boy from a tiny remote, township could develop theories that would change science. He was not a political man, but supported causes that he believed in, such as the equality of women.

Ernest was a proud Kiwi. After he received his knighthood he chose a Kiwi and Maori warrior as the emblems on his crest. He made regular trips back to New Zealand to visit his parents and siblings, which became opportunities to speak on his ideas and to also encourage the funding of science.

Apart from the connection with Stanley McCallum the Ashburton Museum holds a very loose link to the Rutherfords of Spring Grove.

Ernest’s cousin, Harriet, was a friend of Clara Andrews and in 1874 she presented Clara with a book when she and her family moved from Spring Grove to Ashburton.

As the book has a number of clippings pertaining to the Rutherford family, including about Ernest, we can safely assume that the Andrews family and the Rutherfords knew each other.

A fact that I’m sure Sheldon Cooper would find mildly interesting.


By Kathleen Stringer



  1. Friends of the Rutherfords, the Andrew sisters. Clara is front left.
  2. Ernest as a young boy, not much like the man on our $100 note.
  3. Local physicist Stanley McCallum, Rhode Scholar and Fellow of Oxford, Stanley’s field of research included electricity and magnetism.

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