Sarah Barns

Projects News

'The light is the body of the eye': Reflections on Rutherford

They say his eyes had a particular fascination about them. Piercing blue, with a merry twinkle. They say the photos, black and white at the time, didn't do them justice. When his biographer A.S. Eve first met him, at McGill University in 1903, he recalled with a flash of recognition a passage from the Gospel of Matthew: "If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light."

Rutherford, the New Zealand born scientist whom Einstein called a 'second Newton', was in the spotlight last week, when the Arts Centre of Christchurch launched a new interactive science museum bearing the name 'Rutherford's Den'. The launch represented the culmination of 18 months' work on the museum by Esem Projects, to help deliver a new vision for the Den as a contemporary space for contemporary experiential learning.  

Design and curation of the new Rutherford's Den was led by Esem Projects. 


The Den is a bit of a curiosity — and a wonder too. It happens to be the space where Rutherford, a university student in the 1890s, did some of his earliest scientific research, before being awarded a scholarship to Cambridge. He would go on to become a Nobel Prize winning man of science, a man Einstein once called a 'second Newton'.

Not even a room, the 'Den' is more like a basement with a cold, cracked concrete floor and low wooden beams to duck your head under. A fine start to an illustrious scientific career.  

The place has been around for some time as a modest museum of sorts, with some additional discovery rooms, the Den itself, and a lecture theatre replete with old fashioned wooden benches. The buildings were all badly damaged by the earthquakes that hit Christchurch in 2010 and then 2011.

Rutherford's reputation, too, has suffered some damage. Not by the earthquake, but, as father of nuclear physics, by his association with the nuclear bomb.

A major restoration of the Arts Centre, now occupying the former site of Rutherford's university college, provided the chance to revisit Rutherford's legacy and to rethink how this space could be used.

What role might the site itself play within the contemporary fabric of a city rebuilding itself practically from scratch? What light shines from Rutherford's own particular journey, his own life of discovery, of scientific innovation and experimentation, of worldwide acclaim, of leadership and, indeed, of scientific ethics?  

Inside our Radiant Matter exhibit at Rutherford's Den. 

It was these sorts of questions I grappled with when I found myself responding a brief to redesign and re-interpret Rutherford's Den. I confess, having shied away from physics all my life, I'd never actually heard of Rutherford at all until this point. But I knew a lot about the power of story, memory and place in connecting people, and I have always tried my best not to use the past as a barricade against the present or, indeed, the future.

Instead, I like to place past and present in productive dialogue. I try to do this in practice, too, by designing spaces in which to experience stories, making use of today's technologies and ways of seeing in order to orient us toward times different to our own.

Historians will tell you to beware of this: don't think you can use a lens from today to see into the past. They will say you will be denying the pastness of the past, by pasting it over with your own present day preoccupations.

But to me, this is part of the problem, and it's a problem that does no service to people like Rutherford, and to the era in which he lived. We need to get better at learning from the past as a way of navigating complex futures. Too often we think about the future as a kind of destination, an arriving point.

We have futurists and innovators who tell us they know about where the future is headed, and we have historians who tell us what happened before. Both can leave us thinking like the choices we are making don't really matter.

Particularly when we feel that things are changing fast, we get used to thinking things that occurred a long time ago don't concern us much — except perhaps in old age, when we have time on our hands and not enough future, it would seem, to occupy us.

Rutherford is a bit like this: he went out of fashion, just like the Den went a bit out of fashion. Worse, he got stuck in Hiroshima, and the H-bomb, when the drastic consequences of his and his colleagues' quest to understand the special potency of nuclear energy were made so brutally clear.

The Leydon Jar. 

But the life he lived, and the era in which he lived it, do matter to us. This was a time when scientists first began to understand the potent implications of electro-magnetism: they discovered they could use it to interrogate the basic workings of physical universe. They were like children, Rutherford once said, who wanted to pull apart clocks to see how they work.

Except it wasn't clocks they pulled apart. These scientists, working during the first decades of the twentieth century, had figured out how to manipulate the interior structures of atoms and the energetic forces that hold them, miraculously, together to form matter.

And so returning to this odd little space beneath the lecture theatre became a kind of reckoning, both with its historical legacy, a small space from which big things emerged, and with my responsibilities as a way-finder, helping others to make sense from this era.

What struck me most, when delving into the incredible number of new insights men like Rutherford achieved, is how consistent their preoccupations were with ours.  Living in an industrial society meant an insatiable appetite for energy and innovation was fast emerging, and scientists were crucial to the ability to unlock the forces that might power a new era of industrial expansion.

Queen Victoria opening the International Exhibition of 1851. 

Today, as we look ahead at the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an era of data-driven industrial transformation, we would do well to reflect on the lessons from Rutherford's era. Scientists don't operate in a vacuum, and their discoveries have both ethical as well as scientific implications.

We need our specialists in conversation with each other, historians and futurists, humanists and scientists. We need sometimes to go back, in order to move forward. The light that inspired those before us can also be our own wayfinding device, to point our eyes towards the futures we are all, every day, creating. 

creative, rutherfordSarah Barns