Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson OM, FRS (30 August 1871 – 19 October 1937) was a New Zealand-born British chemist and physicist who became known as the father of nuclear physics. In early work he discovered the concept of radioactive half life, proved that radioactivity involved the transmutation of one chemical element to another, and also differentiated and named alpha and beta radiation. This work was done at McGill University in Canada. It is the basis for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry he was awarded in 1908 “for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances”.

Rutherford performed his most famous work after he had moved to the U.K. in 1907 and was already a Nobel laureate. In 1911, he postulated that atoms have their positive charge concentrated in a very small nucleus, and thereby pioneered the Rutherford model, or planetary, model of the atom, through his discovery and interpretation of Rutherford scattering in his gold foil experiment. He is widely credited with first “splitting the atom” in 1917 in a nuclear reaction between nitrogen and alpha particles, in which he also discovered (and named) the proton. This led to the first experiment to split the nucleus in a fully controlled manner, performed by two students working under his direction, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, in 1932.

After his death in 1937, he was honoured by being interred with the greatest scientists of the United Kingdom, near Sir Isaac Newton’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. The chemical element rutherfordium (element 104) was named for him in 1997.

Ernest Rutherford was the son of James Rutherford, a farmer, and his wife Martha Thompson, originally from Hornchurch, Essex, England. James had emigrated to New Zealand from Perth, Scotland, “to raise a little flax and a lot of children”. Ernest was born at Spring Grove (now Brightwater), near Nelson, New Zealand. His first name was mistakenly spelled Earnest when his birth was registered.

He studied at Havelock School and then Nelson College and won a scholarship to study at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand where he was president of the debating society, among other things. After gaining his BA, MA and BSc, and doing two years of research at the forefront of electrical technology, in 1895 Rutherford travelled to England for postgraduate study at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge (1895–1898), and he briefly held the world record for the distance over which electromagnetic waves could be detected.

In 1898 Rutherford was appointed to succeed Hugh Longbourne Callendar in the chair of Macdonald Professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he did the work that gained him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908. In 1900 he gained a DSc from the University of New Zealand. Also in 1900 he married Mary Georgina Newton (1876–1945); they had one daughter, Eileen Mary (1901–1930), who married Ralph Fowler. In 1907 Rutherford moved to Britain to take the chair of physics at the University of Manchester.

He was knighted in 1914. In 1916 he was awarded the Hector Memorial Medal. In 1919 he returned to the Cavendish as Director. Under him, Nobel Prizes were awarded to Chadwick for discovering the neutron (in 1932), Cockcroft and Walton for an experiment which was to be known as splitting the atom using a particle accelerator, and Appleton for demonstrating the existence of the ionosphere. He was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1925 and raised to the peerage as Baron Rutherford of Nelson, of Cambridge in the County of Cambridge, in 1931, a title that became extinct upon his unexpected death in hospital following an operation for an umbilical hernia (1937). Since he was a peer, British protocol at that time required that he be operated on by a titled doctor, and the delay cost him his life. He is interred in Westminster Abbey, alongside J. J. Thomson, and near Sir Isaac Newton.

Nuclear physics

Rutherford’s research, and work done under him as laboratory director, established the nuclear structure of the atom and the essential nature of radioactive decay. Rutherford’s team also demonstrated artificially inducednuclear transmutation. He is known as the father of nuclear physics. Rutherford died too early to see Leó Szilárd’s idea of controlled nuclear chain reactions come into being. A speech of Rutherford’s printed in the September 12, 1933 London paper The Times is reported by Szilárd to have been his inspiration for thinking of the possibility of a controlled nuclear chain reaction, in London, on the same day. Rutherford’s speech touched on the 1932 work of John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton in “splitting” lithium into alpha particles by bombardment with protons from a particle accelerator they had constructed. The speech in part, read:

We might in these processes obtain very much more energy than the proton supplied, but on the average we could not expect to obtain energy in this way. It was a very poor and inefficient way of producing energy, and anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the atoms was talking moonshine. But the subject was scientifically interesting because it gave insight into the atoms

via Ernest Rutherford

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6 Responses to Ernest Rutherford

  1. alfy says:

    What deskarati fans don’t know, and I am in a position to vouchsafe them is that Rutherford stood in as United States Marshall Pat Garrett, at the attempted arrests of Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickock for an antipodean drama of the old west. Rutherford could draw his pearl-handled revolver in 0.3 second and achieve 70% of hits on target.

  2. Deskarati says:

    Really Alfy? – I heard that Einstein once auditioned for the part of Able Seaman DeadEye Dick in Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore but because his wooden leg was on the wrong side he was refused the part!

  3. Steve B says:

    Apropos of nothing, your exchange has reminded me of a line from a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore skit. Namely the Tarzan Audition,

    DC is playing a one-legged man.

    PC “Well Mr Spiggot, you a unidexter, have applied to play a part more normally suited to a two legged man. Your left leg is ideal for the role, I have nothing against it. The problem is neither have you!”

  4. Dr. Eric Scerri says:

    Thanks for the account of Rutherford. However, I find it odd that he should be described as a chemist and physicist (line 4). Rutherford is known to have resented chemists and was fond of remarking something like “all there is to science is physics, the rest is stamp collecting” and at other times equating stamp collecting with chemistry, to mean that chemistry is mere classification. The irony is that Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry rater than physics which caused him some embarrassment given such statements. But the fact that the Nobel committee awarded Rutherford the chemistry prize does not make him a chemist.

  5. Phil Krause says:

    It’s funny how we classify the branches of science, they are all completely interconnected in reality. All chemistry relies on the electronic forces between the atoms while electronic forces are classified within physics.

  6. Dr. Eric Scerri says:

    Thanks Philip,

    The fact is that chemistry both is and is not reduced to physics. Essentially it is nothing but physics since the nuts and bolts that govern physics are physical objects as you point out. Nevertheless considering chemistry from a purely physical point of view is often not so productive. For example synthetic chemists think in particular way without necessarily appealing to quantum mechanics each time they try to make a new compound. Distinctions between specialties are not therefore a waste of time. If all of chemistry could be conducted by appeal to quantum physics, we chemists could pack up and go to the beach. Many of us remain exployed in chemistry departments however.

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