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Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford Photo

Ernest Rutherford was born on 30th August, 1871in New Zealand. His father, James struggled to support his family, but his mother, Martha, was a schoolteacher and believed that education was the most important thing she could give to her children.

Rutherford received his first science book at school when he was 10. This turned out to be a major event in his life since that book inspired Rutherford’s interest in scientific experiments. Rutherford proved to be a brilliant student and in 1887 was awarded a scholarship to attend Nelson Collegiate School, a prestigious private secondary school.

In 1890 Rutherford received yet another scholarship, which landed him at the Canterbury College in Christchurch, New Zealand. Here with the help of his teachers, Rutherford’s enthusiasm for seeking tangible proof through scientific experimentation was fueled further. Rutherford completed both his Bachelor of Arts and his Master of Arts degrees from Canterbury College, with first-class honors in math and science. In 1894, Rutherford started his independent research into the ability of high-frequency electrical discharge to magnetize iron. This research earned him a Bachelor of Science degree within a year.

Research and Discoveries

In 1895, Rutherford developed a simpler and cheaper mode of detecting radio waves as compared to the one developed by German physicist Heinrich Hertz.

While working at University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in London, Professor J.J. Thomson invited Rutherford to collaborate on researching X-rays. The German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had recently discovered X-rays and therefore they were a hot topic within the science faculty of the time. Together, the two studied in detail the effects of X-rays on the conductivity of gases. The result was an in-depth paper about dividing atoms and molecules into ions.

While focusing on uranium, Rutherford observed that placing it near a foil resulted in two types of radiations; one got blocked by the foil, while the other penetrated the foil. He named these radiation types “alpha” and “beta”.  It was later discovered that the alpha particle was a replica of the nucleus of a helium atom, while the beta particle was similar to an electron or positron.

In 1902, Rutherford left Cambridge and joined McGill University in Montreal as a professor. In 1903, Rutherford and his colleague at McGill, Frederick Soddy put forward their disintegration theory of radioactivity. This theory explained that radioactive energy is released from within the atom and when alpha and beta particles are released simultaneously a chemical change occurs in the elements.

In collaboration with Yale Professor Bertram Borden Boltwood, Rutherford classified radioactive elements into what is known as the “decay series.” Rutherford also discovered the radioactive gas radon. Due to his acute understanding of radioelements, Rutherford gained the reputation of being an authority on the subject thus he was invited to give lectures and published articles in numerous magazines and wrote one of the most highly regarded textbooks of the time on radioactivity.

In 1907, on returning to England, Rutherford joined the University of Manchester and started experimentation with firing alpha particles at the foil again. This led to the groundbreaking discovery that the total mass of an atom is centered in the nucleus. This gave birth to the nuclear model, which is the basis of nuclear physics and ultimately led to the invention of the atom bomb. Rutherford received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908.

Death and Legacy

During his lifetime, Rutherford was honored with countless awards, several honorary degrees, and fellowships including the Nobel Prize. In 1914 he was knighted. In 1931, he was elevated to the peerage and became Baron Rutherford of Nelson.

Baron Ernest Rutherford died on 19th October 1937, in Cambridge, England at age 66 from the complications of a strangulated hernia.

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