Ernest Rutherford

1871 - 1937

"All science is either physics or stamp collecting." (Ernest Rutherford)

Ernest Rutherford is one of the most illustrious scientists of all time. He is to the atom what Darwin is to evolution, Newton to mechanics, Faraday to electricity and Einstein to relativity.” (John Campbell, Canterbury University)
In Brief:
Ernest Rutherford was a Nobel award winning New Zealand physicist who proposed radioactive decay, radiometric dating and discovered the structure of the atom. His main achievements are shown in bold.
The Early Years of Ernest Rutherford
Ernest Rutherford was born in Nelson, New Zealand on August 30, 1871. He was the fourth child (second son) in a family of 12 children. His father, James Rutherford, was a Scottish wheelwright who had emigrated to New Zealand in 1842, his mother, Martha (née Thompson) was an English schoolteacher who emigrated in 1855.

Ernest was educated in New Zealand Government schools during his early education, then entered Nelson College* aged 16. In 1889, he won a scholarship to the University of New Zealand (Wellington), where he attended Canterbury College (Christchurch, but administered from Wellington). Ernest achieved a M.A. in 1893, as first in both Mathematics and Physical Science. He did some research work for the College for a short while, and received a B.Sc. by 1894. He was also awarded an 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship that allowed him to go to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied as a research student under J.J. Thomson (who would discover the electron) at the Cavendish Laboratory. In 1897, he received the B.A. Research Degree and the Coutts-Trotter Studentship. He left England in 1898 to become the Macdonald Chair of Physics at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
The Middle Years
Ernest Rutherford was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903 and was its President from 1925 to 1930. In 1907, Rutherford returned to England to take the position of Langworthy Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester... then in 1919 became Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge. He also became Chairman of the Advisory Council, H.M. Government, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research; Professor of Natural Philosophy, Royal Institution, London; and Director of the Royal Society Mond Laboratory, Cambridge. He was also knighted in 1914. This knighthood was followed, in 1925, by an appointment to the Order of Merit, and a peerage (First Baron Rutherford of Nelson, NZ and Cambridge) in 1931.

Ernest Rutherford, during this period, also had many new accolades:
The Later Years and Private Life
Ernest Rutherford married Mary Newton in 1900, and the couple had one child, Eileen (who, just for interest, married a physicist, R.H. Fowler). Ernest was interested in golf and motoring when he was not doing scientific experiments.

Lab partner C.D. Ellis said of Rutherford "the majority of the experiments at the Cavendish were really started by Rutherford's direct or indirect suggestion", and Rutherford also taught many other chemists and future Nobel prize winners. He worked in chemistry all his life.

Rutherford never forgot his homeland of New Zealand, and returned many times during his life. He was quick to spot young Kiwis with scientific talent and to take them to England for an education. Rutherford retired in Christchurch, NZ. He died in Cambridge on October 19, 1937. His ashes were buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey, just west of Sir Isaac Newton's tomb and by that of Lord Kelvin.
Scientific Discoveries, Theories, Papers, Experiments etc
Ernest Rutherford began his researches while he was still in New Zealand, and experimented with the magnetic properties of iron exposed to high-frequency oscillations (thesis = Magnetization of Iron by High-Frequency Discharges), then completed a second paper (Magnetic Viscosity) which described a piece of equipment that would be able to measure tiny time intervals (down to a hundred-thousandth of a second).

When Rutherford arrived at Cambridge, Professor Thomson encouraged him to study the newly-discovered X-ray. The two scientists observed the behaviour of ions in X-ray treated gas, the mobility of ions in relation to the strength of electric fields and other topics (such as the photoelectric effect) in 1897. It was during this time at the Cavendish Laboratory that Rutherford also invented a detector for electromagnetic waves, which relied on a magnetizing coil with tiny bundles of magnetized iron wire. In 1898, Rutherford reported the existence of alpha and beta rays in uranium radiation, and hypothesised some of their propeties.

When he moved to Montreal to take a position at McGill, he continued his work on alpha rays and radioactive bodies in the Macdonald Lab. With R.B. Owens, he studied thorium, and discovered a new noble gas (an isotope of radon, now known as thoron). Rutherford, working with Frederick Soddy, created the disintegration theory of radioactivity, did a lot of experimentation and discovered a number of new radioactive substances. Just for interest, Otto Hahn, who would discover atomic fission, worked under Rutherford at the Montreal Lab. Rutherford discovered gamma rays in 1900.

Back at Manchester, Rutherford continued his previously described research, and joined with H. Geiger to discover a method of detecting a single alpha particle and counting the number of emitted from radium was devised (this, of course, was the Geiger counter... Rutherford was a humble man, and many theories, instruments, experiments and papers that should be at least partially credited to him are, in fact, not).

One of Ernest Rutherford's more famous experiments was held in 1910, when he noted whilst that alpha particles thrown at a sheet of gold leaf would mainly pass through, some where reflected back at an almost 180 degree angle. He investigated the scattering of the alpha rays, and the inner structure of the atom, and finally developed the concept that atoms had a nucleus... this would be his greatest contribution to the world of physics. He then theorised that all of the positive charge and nearly all the mass of an atom was concentrated in the centre of the atom. He came up with a picture of an atom - electrons orbiting the nucleus, held in place by their angular velocity and the electromagnetic attraction to the nucleus (remember his work with magnetics?). Niels Bohr joined forces with Rutherford in 1912, and together they developed Rutherford's nuclear structure to Max Planck's quantum theory to come up with the basic atomic structure we know so well today.
Or, as Fruan has said: (stolen with permission)
"Niels Bohr, however, found fault with this model (ie Rutherford's original picture), because for the electrons to stay in suchs orbits the would be losing energy constantly, and thus fall into the nucleus. This led to the "Rutherford-Bohrs" model, which relied on fixed energy orbitals, only allowing the electrons to give off energy in certain 'quanta', in this case photons. Erwin Schrodinger later refined this model futher, adding more funky quantum shit that really doesn't belong in this write up."
In a nutshell : Rutherford proved, through a series of experiments, John Dalton's atomic theory.

With H.G. Moseley, in 1913, Rutherford bombarded the atoms of various elements with cathode rays, and proved that each element could be assigned an atomic number (as the inner structures of the elements corresponded with a group of lines characterising the elements), and this atomic number could define the properities of the element.

In 1919, his last year at Manchester, he figured out that the nuclei of light elements (like nitrogen) could be "disintegrated" by alpha particles from a radioactive source hitting the nuclei, and that fast protons were emitted during this process. Blackett later proved that the nitrogen was transformed into an isotope of oxygen, so Rutherford was the first to transmute an element.

During his time at various academic institutions, Ernest Rutherford also published a number of books:
Rutherford was active during World War I, but did not actually condone the fighting. He was highly frustrated by the fact that scientists working under him (many who were on their way to a Nobel prize) kept being sent to the war front and getting killed. Rutherford's contribution to the Allies' war effort was research into detecting submarines via sonar.
Summing Up
Ernest Rutherford was an extremely important man in the field of science, and his works still stand today. He proved John Dalton's atom, and followed the work of Pierre and Marie Curie, experimenting with radiation. He did extremely important research, much of which is not attributed to him, but is most famous for splitting the atom. He discovered the half-life of radioactive elements and applied this discovery to studies of age determination of rocks by measuring the decay period of radium to lead-206. He also coined a whole bunch of terms that are in common scientific usage, to do with radiation.

Sources: Nobel e-museum; Kiwi Web;; and stuff gained through a search on
* Discrepancy - some sources say Nelson Collegiate

Because this is node 150, I'm going to do a dedication... to TheBooBooKitty for mentoring me through 110 nodes - thank you!; to Fruan for making me do this node as 150 (although we all know you just want to delete yours so you can get an even higher node-fu hahaha) and to sid for telling me to take my time with this one, no matter how much pressure a certain couple of previously-mentioned people might be putting on me :)