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All Around My Life

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Wednesday 30 May 2012: New Zealand's most famous son

I must thank Katherineellis for giving me the idea for this blip - or, more accurately, for giving me the idea of actually stopping at the site of Rutherford's Birthplace on the edge of State Highway 6 at Brightwater today. Katherine was giving a performance in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on May 25th and included a link in her blip to the monument there commemorating the splitting of the atom. I thought to myself, "But hang on, surely NZ should have such a monument? After all, it was a Kiwi that split the atom!" Then I remembered all the times we have driven past that corner near the big vineyard outside Brightwater, where large gold letters on a painted concrete slab announce 'Rutherford Birthplace.'

I've often wondered if one will be directed to an old house bearing a little plaque if one drives down that road. No, one will not. In fact, the place is marked by a rather lovely memorial which I had never realised was the memorial, right there beside the highway.

The credit for this edifice must go to a small group of people including Rutherford's descendants who banded together and raised money to buy the site of his childhood home (a modest cottage that had been demolished around 1921) and finally, over a period of many years, managed to design and have built a lasting memorial to Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson, which was opened in December 1991 in the presence of all of Rutherford's grand-children. At its centre is a bronze statue of a little boy representing a New Zealand child stepping forwards into his future.

Ernest Rutherford was, as John Campbell says on the website, 'this country's most famous son, Nelson's most gifted export, one of the most illustrious scientists the world has seen and the first New Zealander to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He is to the atom what Darwin is to evolution, Newton to mechanics, Faraday to electricity and Einstein to relativity. His pathway from rural child to immortality is a fascinating one.'

He started out life in 1871 as the fourth of his parents' 12 children in Spring Grove, near Brightwater. His mother was a school teacher and his father worked hard at various jobs over the years including farming, flax-milling and railway construction (on that Railway line I mentioned a few days ago!). Ernest won a scholarship to Nelson College for boys and later, on his second attempt, another scholarship to Canterbury College Christchurch, part of the University of New Zealand.

This was just the start of an illustrious career as a scientist that would take me days to write about, but you can read it here. Suffice it to say, the memorial contains acknowledgements of his achievements at the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester and McGill; his War work; the Knighthood that was conferred in 1914 and his subsequent elevation to the Peerage in 1931. He died in 1937 and his ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey. One of the most interesting things though, to me, was to discover that Rutherford did not actually split the atom! This is apparently a myth: ' It is a very common myth in New Zealand that Ernest Rutherford received a Nobel Prize for splitting the atom. He didn`t. That work was first done in 1917, nearly a decade after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and 15 years after he did the main work for which he received the prize. It is a particularly difficult myth to eradicate. '

The memorial itself is a carefully-thought-out series of bays and terraces. A dairy farm behind preserves Rutherford's rural background while English Oaks, a Canadian Maple and New Zealand native Totara trees border the site as a lasting tribute to the countries that he called home at various stages throughout his lifetime. The story of Rutherford's life and work is told using display panels and six sound stations in a garden setting.

A central mound is surmounted by this small bronze statue of a child - a New Zealand child stepping out into the future with a catapault showing from one pocket. The sun was at an angle that made photographing the statue difficult and the layout of the gardens is really best viewed from the air, I think, so I've chosen to blip this view from behind the statue. The important thing to note is that this is supposed to be an inspiration to all New Zealand children that, no matter how humble their beginnings, each one of them has the chance to go on to greatness and even, like Lord Rutherford, end up with their portrait on a one hundred-dollar note!

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