Ernest Rutherford

Ernest RutherfordErnest Rutherford (1871-1937)
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1908

Ernest Rutherford was born on August 30, 1871, in Spring Grove, New Zealand, eventually becoming 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 and a significant part of his pathway to greatness was navigated in Canada.

In 1894 Rutherford received a Bachelor of Science Degree from Canterbury College in New Zealand with a double major in Mathematics and Physical Science.& Later that year he received a scholarship to the University of Cambridge in England where he served as a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory under J.J. Thomson. During his investigations of radioactivity there, he coined the terms alpha, beta and gamma rays. In 1897, Rutherford was awarded his B.A. Research Degree.

When the Chair of Physics at McGill University in Montreal became vacant in 1898, Rutherford left for Canada to take up the post. McGill then became the hotbed for early work in subatomic physics. Rutherford and his team were on the forefront of a new science. The research carried out revolved around investigations into the phenomenon of natural radiation, a form of which, the x-ray, had been discovered a few years earlier by Röntgen. At McGill, Rutherford did the work that gained him the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, demonstrating that radioactivity was the spontaneous disintegration of atoms. This is ironic given his famous remark, “In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting.” He noticed that in a sample of radioactive material, it invariably took the same amount of time for half the sample to decay – a measurement he called its “half-life” – and created a practical application for this phenomenon using this constant rate of decay as a clock, which could then be used to help determine the actual age of the Earth that turned out to be much older than most scientists at the time believed.

In 1907, Rutherford took the Chair of Physics at the University of Manchester in England. By 1911, after studying the deflection of alpha particles shot through gold foil, Rutherford had established the nuclear theory of the atom. In June of 1919, Rutherford announced his success as the World’s first “alchemist” by artificially disintegrating nitrogen into hydrogen and oxygen by alpha particle bombardment.  Later that year, he succeeded his mentor Sir Joseph Thomson as Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge University where he spent several years directing the development of proton accelerators.

Under Rutherford’s directorship, Nobel Prizes were awarded to James Chadwick for discovering the neutron, Cockcroft and Walton for splitting the atom using a particle accelerator and Appleton for demonstrating the existence of the ionosphere. Ernest Rutherford died in Cambridge on October 19, 1937, and his ashes were later buried at Westminster Abbey, in London near the remains of other scientific giants Sir Isaac Newton and Lord Kelvin.