Biography Of Ernest Rutherford

Biography Of Ernest Rutherford


Ernest Rutherford (30 Aug 1871-19 Oct 1937) was a New Zealand-born British physicist who is considered the founder of Nuclear Physics. Through many tests, Rutherford changed our understanding of the atom. Rutherford discovered that the atom is mostly space, with electrons and a nucleus. Rutherford discovered the properties of radiation, and half-life, and created the first artificially-induced nuclear reaction that converted nitrogen atoms into oxygen. His work was a crucial event in the evolution of nuclear energy, radiation, and the subatomic level of Physics. His work was also crucial in the development of quantum physics later on.

Rutherford was born in Brightwater near Nelson located in New Zealand to an English mother and a Scottish father. He attended Canterbury College, the University of New Zealand where the degree he earned a BA degree, an MA as well as a BSc. After Canterbury was completed, he received an award to attend Cambridge University. The  University of Cambridge, where was employed and studied within the Cavendish Laboratory under renowned physicist J.J. Thomson. In Cambridge, Rutherford was at the forefront of the detection of radio waves that traveled over distances.

In the year 1898, Rutherford accepted a job at McGill University in Montreal, Canada before his return back to his home at the University of New Zealand. When the First World War, he was a professor of physics at Victoria University of Manchester. In the course of the conflict, he worked on an undercover project that sought to identify submarines underwater. Rutherford created methods inside secret labs in Manchester that could detect son waves in the water and allow ships to recognize submarines’ presence within the water. Sonar detection was vital during the two World Wars due to the threat of submarines posed by Germans. The work of the scientist was protected by the Official Secrets Act, and it was not known until the day of his demise. However, even during his time in the First World War, he continued to research the structure of the Atom. One time when he was late for an interview with military officials. With the usual glee, he dismissed the delay by saying that his research (on cutting the nucleus of the electron) was “far more advanced than those conducted during that war!”

The splitting of the atom

“I have broken the machine and smacked an image of the universe.”

Ernest Rutherford, quoted in A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford by Richard Reeves

In 1918 when he was working in Manchester, Ernest Rutherford was the first person to be able to cut the nucleus that makes up an atom. Rutherford bombarded nitrogen using alpha particles derived from radioactive materials. The nitrogen was converted into oxygen.

In 1932 two students of Rutherford’s John Cockroft and Ernest Walton under the direction of Rutherford were the first to separate the nucleus using the use of artificial methods. They utilized the particle accelerator for bombarding lithium using protons and producing two Alpha particles.

Following the First World War, he returned to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.

Biography Of Ernest Rutherford


Biography Of Ernest Rutherford




Radioactivity was first identified in 1896 by French researcher Antoine Henri Becquerel. But, Becquerel never developed this beyond the concept that uranium compounds break down. Rutherford was fascinated by the possibilities and began to research the topic. He found that the radioactive emission consisted of two particles moving at a rapid pace, known as beta and alpha Rays.

“Radioactivity is demonstrated to be linked to chemical changes that lead to the creation of new forms of matter are constantly created. … We conclude that these chemical modifications have to be sub-atomic.”

— Rutherford, Philosophical Magazine (September 1902)

Another important discovery by scientists was the realization of strong energy that was released by  Atomic behavior. Scientists previously believed that energy came from coming from an external source and was derived through a chemical reaction. However, Rutherford showed that behavior in the atom could generate a huge wave of energy ‘atomic. This was crucial to the creation of atomic energy and bombs.

Rutherford’s studies also proved that individual atoms could alter their structures. This proved to be a change in the belief that atoms were unbreakable. Rutherford conducted experiments that showed Uranium atoms changing into lead via radioactive decay. By measuring the rate of decay which he measured, he was able to create a concept – “half-life period” that reveals the length of time required to take 50% of the atoms to degrade. This was useful for dating radioactively, e.g. carbon dating.

He was a scientist in 1903 when he wrote the “Law Of Radioactive Change” together with Frederick Soddy, demonstrating how radioactivity could cause atoms to spontaneously change into a completely new matter. He was given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 for his research on radiation and decomposition.

The atom was long considered to be the smallest form of matter that exists in the universe. However, Rutherford proved that the atom is made up of space, with alpha particles and nuclei that orbit around. (Niels Bohr later described the atom as the miniature universe that Bohr used in Rutherford’s findings).

“The first thing that comes to mind from the concept of the atom. I was raised to view it as being a beautiful hard-working fellow, gray or red depending on the preference. To explain the facts the atom is not considered a sphere of material, but as a kind of wave motion of a unique type.”

— Rutherford

Gold Foil experiment

It was 1909 when Rutherford as well as Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden studied alpha particles directed toward the gold sheet. They observed that the more hard alpha particles could travel straight through the sheet of gold however the smaller (about 1 of 8000) Alpha particles reflected. Rutherford repeated the experiment many times and using mathematical proof, was able to demonstrate that the particles that went straight through were passing through the space between the atom. The particles that were reflected hit the nucleus that is dense that makes up the electron. It was a moment of revolution in the field of science to realize that most material is space! Gold, one of the most solid objects on the planet consisted of gold atoms that were mostly space.

Biography Of Ernest Rutherford


Even Rutherford was astonished by his findings, writing:

“It was the most remarkable event that’s experienced by me in my entire life. It was as amazing as shooting a 15-inch round at an object of tissue paper, and it bounced back and struck you.”
as the quote is in Rutherford and like the Atom (1964)

Rutherford had a charismatic person who believed in his abilities. He was not afflicted by self-confidence but was aware of his pioneering work and the development of Physics. A colleague remarked on Rutherford’s capacity to be at the forefront of a wave’ in research in science. Rutherford said. “Well, what’s the problem? In the end, I created the waves but didn’t. According to his colleagues in science, they called him “The Crocodile because he always looked ahead.

Rutherford got married to Mary Georgina in 1900. They had a child, Eileen Mary (1901-1930). The president was of the Royal Society from 1925-1930.

He died in 1937 of an infection of his stomach. He died one year before the explosion of the uranium nucleus in Berlin in 1938 turning nuclear Physics into a weapon for war. In a way, in his time during the First World War, he was adamant about the possibilities of nuclear energy that was his hope that man wouldn’t be able to harness the power of nuclear energy was discovered until “man lived in peace with his neighbors.”

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