Rutherford, Ernest 1871 - 1937

(1871-1937) Baron Rutherford of Nelson, physicist

Ernest Rutherford was born on the 30th August 1871 in New Zealand where he was educated and brought up until 1895. In 1889 he was awarded a University scholarship and he proceeded to the University of New Zealand, Wellington, where he entered Canterbury College. He received a double first in Mathematics and Physical Science and he continued with research work at the College for a short time, receiving the B.Sc. degree the following year. In 1894 Rutherford went to Trinity College Cambridge as a research student. Here, Rutherford discovered that placing uranium 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.

In 1898 he went to Canada as the Macdonald Chair of Physics at McGill University, Montreal. Here, 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 and became Langworthy Professor of Physics in 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. 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.

Rutherford was knighted in 1914; he was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1925, and in 1931 he was created First Baron Rutherford of Nelson, New Zealand, and Cambridge. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903 and was its President from 1925 to 1930. He died in the Evelyn Nursing Home, Cambridge, on 19 October 1937 of complications following an operation for a strangulated hernia