Campus curiosities. 04 Kapitza's crocodile, cambridge

May 13, 2005

Leaping up the brickwork of a cylindrical tower hidden in the middle of Cambridge University's New Museums Site is a great carved crocodile, eyes a-goggle and teeth bared.

But the rampant reptile is not linked to the nearby zoology department - it is a bizarre tribute to Sir Ernest Rutherford, the exuberant New Zealander credited as the founding father of nuclear physics.

The carving was commissioned by Pyotr Kapitza, a brilliant young Russian who moved to Cambridge to work with Rutherford. Kapitza gave his mentor the nickname "crocodile", a title that in Russian folklore is traditionally conferred to great men.

He also noted that, just like the crocodile in Peter Pan , whose approach was announced by the ticking of Captain Hook's watch in its belly, Rutherford's imminent arrival was often heralded by his thundering voice.

Hence an effigy of the animal was carved by Eric Gill into the side of the Mond Laboratory, which was built in 1932 with Rutherford's backing to enable Kapitza to push back the boundaries of low-temperature physics.

Sadly, the Russian had only a couple of years to enjoy Gill's handiwork. In 1934, at the end of a holiday back in the Soviet Union, Kapitza was barred from leaving the country and never set foot in Cambridge again.

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