Ernest Rutherford in his Laboratory at McGill University ca. 1903.
Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937)
Ernest Rutherford is considered the father of nuclear physics. Indeed, it could be said that Rutherford invented the very language to describe the theoretical concepts of the atom and the phenomenon of radioactivity. Particles named and characterized by him include the alpha particle, beta particle and proton.
Even the neutron, discovered by James Chadwick, owes its name to Rutherford. The exponential equation used to calculate the decay of radioactive substances was first employed for that purpose by Rutherford and he was the first to elucidate the related concepts of the half-life and decay constant. With Frederick Soddy at McGill University, Rutherford showed that elements such as uranium and thorium became different elements (i.e., transmuted) through the process of radioactive decay. At the time, such an incredible idea was not to be mentioned in polite company: it belonged to the realm of alchemy, not science.
For this work, Rutherford won the 1908 Nobel Prize in chemistry. In 1909, now at the University of Manchester, Rutherford was bombarding a thin gold foil with alpha particles when he noticed that although almost all of them went through the gold, one in eight thousand would “bounce” (i.e., scatter) back. The amazed Rutherford commented that it was “as if you fired a 15-inch naval shell at a piece of tissue paper and the shell came right back and hit you.”
From this simple observation, Rutherford concluded that the atom’s mass must be concentrated in a small positively-charged nucleus while the electrons inhabit the farthest reaches of the atom. Although this planetary model of the atom has been greatly refined over the years, it remains as valid today as when it was originally formulated by Rutherford. In 1919, Rutherford returned to Cambridge to become director of the Cavendish laboratory where he had previously done his graduate work under J.J. Thomson. It was here that he made his final major achievement, the artificial alteration of nuclear and atomic structure. By bombarding nitrogen with alpha particles, Rutherford demonstrated the production of a different element, oxygen. “Playing with marbles” is what he called; the newspapers reported that Rutherford had “split the atom.” After his death in 1937, Rutherford’s remains were buried in Westminster Abbey near those of Sir Isaac Newton.
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