John Cockcroft’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1951
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.
The award of the Nobel Prize is the greatest honour which can come to a member of the scientific world and I hardly need tell you how proud I am and with what sense of exaltation I have come to this great assembly, gathered together to do honour to Arts and Sciences. I have been most happy also to visit this country again, a country which combines in such an outstanding way the highest developments of Science and Technology with the Arts of Living, as we have seen today.
When I look round this great hall I feel that I have been transported into a magical world by the genie of Alfred Nobel. How did it come about that we were chosen to represent Science? I, personally, have been doubly fortunate – first because I have been able to work in the past with some of the great men of the Scientific and Technical world in Britain and particularly with Lord Rutherford, whom you honoured here over 40 years ago, and whom you transformed in a single night from a Physicist into a Chemist, as you have done with Edward MacMillan today. On one side of the Nobel Medal you can see the genie of Science lifting the veil which obscures the Goddess of Nature. I was fortunate in working in the Cavendish Laboratory in the 1930’s when the time was ripe for a further lifting of the veil, since new ideas in theoretical physics combined with the development of technology in physics made possible the many great discoveries of that “annus mirabilis” of 1932. At that time we did not foresee how important the developments in nuclear physics would be for the world and indeed Rutherford, in his last lecture, could not foresee the practical consequences. And yet within a few months of his death the veil was lifted a little further and the enormous power of nuclear forces became apparent. Since that time many people have wished perhaps that the genie and with him the scientist could be put back in the bottle and have blamed science for the troubles of our time. I feel myself that the overwhelming evil and danger comes not from science but from political ideas which reject the freedom of the human spirit and the values and rights of individual human beings. In these difficult times science can be one of the strongest shields of our Western Civilisation. The honour which you have rendered to scientists today will fortify us at a time when more than ever we need understanding.
Prior to the speech, Einar Löfstedt, member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, addressed the laureate: “Brilliant, too, is the work that has been carried out in the field of nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry by this year’s four prize-winners. You, Sir John Cockcroft and Professor Walton, have, at an early stage, through your ingenious ideas and experiments, pointed the way to fundamental enlightenment on the structure of atomic nuclei. You have thereby opened up an extremely fruitful field of research, which has since been ardently developed and which at the present day is of greater current interest than ever. No less an authority than Lord Rutherford has said with reference to your work: it is the first step which counts. You have done a real pioneering work, and we are glad to see it crowned, not only by fame, but also by the Nobel Prize.”