Ernest Rutherford is ranked in fame with Sir Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday, the "father of electricity." He contributed substantially to the understanding of the disintegration and transmutation of the radioactive elements, discovered and named the particles expelled from radium, identified the alpha particle as a helium atom and with its aid evolved the nuclear theory of atomic structure, and he used that particle to produce the first artificial disintegration of elements.
Rutherford proposed the description of the structure of atoms in 1911. He said an atom was tiny, dense, positively charged with a core called a nucleus, in which nearly all the mass is concentrated. Around the nucleus were the light, negative constituents, called electrons. They circulate at some distance, much like planets revolving around the Sun. The Rutherford atomic model has been alternatively called the nuclear atom or the planetary model of the atom.
Rutherford was born in Spring Grove, New Zealand, on August 30, 1871. He was the fourth of the twelve children of James and Martha Rutherford. His father was a Scottish wheelwright and his mother an English schoolteacher. After migrating, his father became a farmer. In 1887 Rutherford won a scholarship to Nelson College where he won prizes in history and languages as well as mathematics. Another scholarship allowed him to enroll in Canterbury College, Christchurch, where he graduated with the BA in 1892 and the MA in 1893 with first class honors in mathematics and physics.
Financing himself by part-time teaching, he stayed for a fifth year to do research in physics and studied the properties of iron in high-frequency alternating magnetic fields. He found that he could detect the electromagnetic waves even after they had passed through brick walls. Two scientific papers on this work won him an "1851 Exhibition" scholarship, which provided for further education in England.
After he received his master's degree, he went to Cambridge in 1895 to work with Sir J.J. Thomson at Cavendish Laboratory. He continued his work on the detection of electromagnetic waves and gave an experimental lecture on his results before the Cambridge Physical Society. He was delighted when his paper was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Thomson later asked Rutherford to join him in a study of the effects of passing a beam of X-rays through a gas. They discovered that the X-rays produced large quantities of electrically charged particles and these ionized atoms recombined to form neutral molecules. Working on his own, Rutherford then devised a technique for measuring the velocity and rate of recombination of these positive and negative ions. The published papers on this subject remain classics to the present day.
In 1898 Rutherford was appointed to the chair of physics at McGill University, Montreal. He wrote 80 scientific papers during his seven years at McGill, made many public appearances, and received offers from other universities. The Royal Society elected him a member in 1903 and awarded him the Rumford medal in 1904. In 1907 he returned to England to accepted a Chair at the University of Manchester, where he continued his research on the alpha particle. With his student, Thomas Royds, he proved in 1908 that the alpha particle really is a helium atom. Almost immediately, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908. In 1912 he was made Baron Rutherford of Nelson.
In 1900 Ernest married Mary Newton, eventually having one daughter. His chief recreations were golf and motoring. He also violently opposed the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. In the 1930's, the last years of his life he helped Jewish refugees flee from Nazi persecution. He was said to be a very kind and gracious man. He died in Cambridge on October 19, 1937, following a short illness, and his ashes were buried in the nave of Westminister Abbey, just west of Sir Isaac Newton's tomb and by that of Lord Kelvin.
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Feather, Norman. Lord Rutherford. London: Balckie & Sons, Ltd,. Glasgow, ©1973
Proton or prouton? Rutherford and the dep. American Journal of Science, © August 1997
Rowland, John. Ernest Rutherford: Atom Pioneer. New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1957.
Jo Ann Berry