By far the most famous quote from Ernest Rutherford is that “all science is either physics or stamp collecting.” It is generally taken to mean (especially by physicists) that Rutherford felt that physics is superior to chemistry and geology and biology and that those other “lesser” sciences are just stamp collecting. This is particularly delicious to self-important physicists because Rutherford won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1908. But did Rutherford really say this and if he did, did he mean it that way?
First, let’s start with where the quotation came from. The first recorded instance of Rutherford and “stamp collecting” was from a book called “The Social Importance of Science” written by a Physicist named John Bernal in 1939 (two years after Rutherford’s death). On page 9, Bernal casually writes that, “Rutherford used to divide science into physics and stamp collecting.” All other references come years later and were probably influenced by Bernal’s line.
For that reason, it is a good idea to look into Bernal and see his connection to Rutherford. Bernal was an Irish scientist, 30 years younger than Rutherford, who studied x-ray scattering. In 1927, he became a lecturer at Cambridge, and in 1934 he became the assistant director to the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge while Ernest Rutherford was the director there. So, Bernal was well acquainted with Rutherford in Rutherford’s later years. Although Bernal might have slightly misremembered the expression, it seems pretty clear that Rutherford probably said something like this. So, what did Rutherford mean?
Could Rutherford have meant that all sciences that aren’t physics are just “stamp collecting”? It certainly sounds that way. However, it doesn’t jibe with anything else Rutherford said or did outside of this one quote. Although Rutherford considered himself a physicist and was surprised to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry, he never insulted chemistry or any other science. In fact, he collaborated with many famous chemists and geologists (notably Fredrick Soddy, and Bertram Boltwood). Not only that, but Rutherford had a Bachelor of Science degree with firsts in chemistry and geology, so he liked those subjects in school. This interpretation frankly makes no sense considering Rutherford’s background and how it diminishes his own Nobel Prize.
I have seen the interpretation that Rutherford meant that all science could be split into “real science” and “stamp collecting”. If this is what Rutherford meant, he said it in a very awkward and insulting manner, as physics is now short hand for “real science”. Also, it implies a distain for the science of organizing, which is something that, once again, Rutherford never complained about outside of this quote.
What did Bernal think that Rutherford meant? Well, we actually only have to read the next line of his book. Bernal wrote that, “Rutherford used to divide science into physics and stamp collecting, but if the analogy were to be carried through, it would be reduced to ‘gadgeteering’ and stamp collecting.” In other words, Bernal thought of “physics” as shorthand for the physical, i.e. “gadgeteering”. If you rewrite the quotation as, “science is either physical or stamp collecting,” then the entire statement has a far different meaning. This would be an insult not of different sciences, but of theoreticians. Now, finally, we have a subject that Rutherford complained about from other sources. Later in life Rutherford was notoriously disdainful of pure theoreticians, especially those in quantum mechanics (with the exception of Niels Bohr who Rutherford liked as he played sports). He once told Heisenberg, “We are all much obliged for your exposition of a lot of interesting nonsense, which is most suggestive.” Also, according to his biographer, he said that theoreticians “play games with their symbols, but we, in the Cavendish, turn out the real solid facts of Nature.” Bernal himself conflicted with Rutherford on this very subject, as Bernal loved quantum mechanics and debating theory. In fact, Bernal’s nickname was “the sage”. It wasn’t that Rutherford was against theory as he had many theoretical leaps over his astonishing career. It was that he was against theory that did not come from experiment.
So, in other words, Rutherford was insulting theoretical physicists not chemists. Therefore, if you see a theoretical physicist proudly wearing a “All Science is Physics or Stamp Collecting” T-shirt, you might say, to paraphrase “The Princess Bride”, “You keep on using that term, I do not think it means what you think it means”.
If you are interested in learning more about Rutherford from what he said in personal letters and published articles, then you might like this video I made about him. In it I describe how a poor boy from New Zealand ended up discovering alpha and beta radiation, found that materials can decay into other elements, found a new radioactive element (Radon), discovered that radioactivity decays with a half life, and used these facts to discover that the earth was hundreds of millions of years older than it was expected to be! Astonishingly, Rutherford accomplished all of this (and more) before his famous gold-foil experiment where he discovered the nucleus. Check it out.