Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford bigraphy, stories - New Zealander nuclear physicist

Ernest Rutherford : biography

30 August 1871 – 19 October 1937

"Lord Rutherford" redirects here; not to be confused with Lord Rutherfurd or with Andrew Rutherford, 1st Earl of Teviot.

Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson (30 August 1871 – 19 October 1937) was a New Zealand-born physicist and chemist who became known as the father of nuclear physics.

He is considered the greatest experimentalist since Michael Faraday (1791–1867). 

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 moved in 1907 to the Victoria University of Manchester (today University of Manchester) in the UK, where he and Thomas Royds proved that alpha radiation was helium ions.E. Rutherford and T. Royds (1908) Philosophical Magazine, Series 6, vol. 16, pages 313-317. Rutherford performed his most famous work after he became a Nobel laureate. In 1911, although he could not prove that it was positive or negative,

he theorized that atoms have their charge concentrated in a very small nucleus,

and thereby pioneered the Rutherford 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.. (1937-10-19). Retrieved on 2011-01-26.

Rutherford became Director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in 1919. Under his leadership the neutron was discovered by James Chadwick in 1932 and in the same year the first experiment to split the nucleus in a fully controlled manner, performed by students working under his direction, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton. 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 after him in 1997.


Famous statements

  • "The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine." – 1933
  • "It was almost as if you fired a 15 inch shell into a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.” (describing the Geiger-Marsden experiment)
  • "All science is either physics or stamp collecting" (though he was in 1908 awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry)
  • "We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think."
  • "If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment."
  • "You should never bet against anything in science at odds of more than about 1012 to 1."
  • "An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid."


Early life and education

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 during which he invented a new form of radio receiver, in 1895 Rutherford was awarded an "1851 Exhibition Scholarship" to travel to England for postgraduate study at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge. He was among the first of the ‘aliens’ (those without a Cambridge degree) allowed to do research at the university, under the inspiring leadership of J. J. Thomson, and the newcomers aroused jealousies from the more conservative members of the Cavendish fraternity. With Thomson’s encouragement, he managed to detect radio waves at half a mile and briefly held the world record for the distance over which electromagnetic waves could be detected, though when he presented his results at the British Association meeting in 1896, he discovered he had been outdone by another lecturer, by the name of Marconi.