Carved into the brickwork of a cylindrical tower at Cambridge University’s New Museums Site is a great crocodile. It was commissioned by Pyotr Kapitza, who had moved to Cambridge from Russia expressly to work with Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. Kapitza called his mentor “crocodile,” a title that Russians traditionally confer on great men (and also, Kapitza said, because Rutherford’s thunderous voice announced his approach, just as the crocodile in Peter Pan was announced by the ticking watch in its belly).
Eric Gill carved the animal into the side of the Mond Laboratory, which was erected in 1933 with Rutherford’s backing to support Kapitza’s work in low-temperature physics. Unfortunately, after a holiday in Russia the following year, Kapitza was barred from leaving the country, and he never returned to Cambridge.
A few quotations by Rutherford:
- “Don’t let me catch anyone talking about the Universe in my department.”
- “An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.”
- “We’re like children who always want to take apart watches to see how they work.”
- “We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think.”
- “When we have found how the nucleus of atoms is built up we shall have found the greatest secret of all — except life.”
Paul Langevin and Rutherford served together as research assistants at Cavendish Laboratory. Asked afterward whether they were friendly, Langevin said, “One can hardly speak of being friendly with a force of nature.”