Physics in Perspective

, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 128–145 | Cite as

Atomic Energy is “Moonshine”: What did Rutherford Really Mean?

  • John G. JenkinEmail author


In the 1930s Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937) repeatedly suggested, sometimes angrily, that the possibility of harnessing atomic energy was “moonshine.” Yet, as war approached he secretly advised the British government to “keep an eye on the matter.” I suggest that Rutherford did not really believe his “moonshine” claim but did have profound reasons for making it. If I am correct, then this casts additional light on his personality, stature, and career.


Ernest Rutherford Frederick Soddy James Chadwick Henry G.J. Moseley Mark Oliphant Leo Szilard Maurice Hankey McGill University University of Manchester University of Cambridge Great War atomic energy radioactivity nuclear physics social responsibility of scientists history of physics 



I am grateful to John S. Rigden and Roger H. Stuewer for their encouragement, advice, and assistance over the years, and in particular for the latter’s generous attention to my present paper.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy ProgramLa Trobe UniversityVictoriaAustralia

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