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Ernest Rutherford's scientific career and achievements

October 08, 2019

Ernest Rutherford was a New Zealand-born British physicist who came to be known as the father of nuclear physics. Encyclopædia Britannica considers him to be the greatest experimentalist since Michael Faraday (1791–1867).


Chemist and physicist Ernest Rutherford was born August 30, 1871, in Spring Grove, New Zealand. A pioneer of nuclear physics and the first to split the atom, Rutherford was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his theory of atomic structure. Dubbed the “Father of the Nuclear Age,” Rutherford died in Cambridge, England, on October 19, 1937 of a strangulated hernia.

Research and Discoveries

In 1895, as the first research student at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in London, Rutherford identified a simpler and more commercially viable means of detecting radio waves than had been previously established by German physicist Heinrich Hertz.
Also while at Cavendish Laboratory, Rutherford was invited by Professor J.J. Thomson to collaborate on a study of X-rays. German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had discovered X-rays just months before Rutherford arrived at Cavendish, and X-rays were a hot topic among research scientists. Together, Rutherford and Thomson studied the effects of X-rays on the conductivity of gases, resulting in a paper about dividing atoms and molecules into ions. While Thomson went on to examine what would later be called an electron, Rutherford took a closer look at ion-producing radiations.
Focusing on uranium, Rutherford discovered that placing it near foil resulted in one type of radiation being easily soaked up or blocked, while a different type had no trouble penetrating the same foil. He labeled the two radiation types “alpha” and “beta.” As it turns out, the alpha particle was identical to the nucleus of a helium atom. The beta particle was, in fact, the same as an electron or positron.
Rutherford left Cambridge in 1902 and took up a professorship at McGill University in Montreal. At McGill in 1903, Rutherford and has colleague Frederick Soddy introduced their disintegration theory of radioactivity, which claimed radioactive energy was emitted from within an atom and that when alpha and beta particles were emitted at the same time, they caused a chemical change across elements. Rutherford and Yale Professor Bertram Borden Boltwood went on to categorize radioactive elements into what they called a “decay series.” Rutherford was also credited with discovering the radioactive gas radon while at McGill. Achieving fame for his contributions to the understanding of radioelements, Rutherford became an active public speaker, published numerous magazine articles and wrote the most highly regarded textbook of the time on radioactivity.
In 1907 Rutherford returned to England, transferring to a professorship at the University of Manchester. Through further experimentation involving firing alpha particles at foil, Rutherford made the groundbreaking discovery that nearly the total mass of an atom is concentrated in a nucleus. In so doing, he gave birth to the nuclear model, a discovery that marked the inception of nuclear physics and ultimately paved the way to the invention of the atom bomb. Aptly dubbed the “Father of the Nuclear Age,” Rutherford received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908.
With the advent of World War I, Rutherford turned his attention to antisubmarine research. By 1919 he had made another monumental discovery: how to artificially induce a nuclear reaction in a stable element. Nuclear reactions were Rutherford’s main focus for the rest of his scientific career.
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