Ernest Rutherford

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Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford was born in Spring Grove in New Zealand on August 30th, 1871. His parents, James and Martha, had emigrated from Great Britain and believed their children, numbering 12, should have proper education. At the age of 16 Ernest won his first scholarship to Nelson College, where he was a popular student. He followed with a second scholarship to Canterbury College in Christchurch, and by 1893 had graduated with first class honours in Physics and Mathematics. Rutherford stayed at Canterbury for a further year to study Physics in more detail, particularly how iron reacted in magnetic fields. He also researched electromagnetic (wireless) waves, shortly after they were discovered by the German Heinrich Hertz, and produced two papers on his findings, winning another scholarship in England.
When he arrived in Cambridge in 1895, Ernest worked for J.J. Thomson, a lecturer at Cambridge’s ‘Cavendish Laboratory’. He often wrote letters to his girlfriend, Mary Nelson, and his mother, and in these he depicts how some members of Cavendish were jealous of him, or so he thought. Everywhere Ernest went, he was recognized as being a leader and thinker, with ‘amazing concentration’.
He continued working on wireless or Hertzian waves, and discovered they not only traveled through brick walls but over a distance of two miles. When Rutherford gave an experimental lecture for the Physics Society of Cambridge University, his paper was so successful that it was also published in the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, a signal honour for so young an investigator.”*
Late in 1895, after Rontgen had discovered x-rays, Thomson invited Ernest to join him in looking at how these x-rays passed through a gas. The discovery made was that x-rays made many ions, or electrically charged particles. These particles had either a positive or negative charge, and were therefore attracted to each other in the same fashion as the north and south poles of a magnet. When they joined together the charges evened out, and the particles had no charge.
Rutherford began working on his own and discovered a formula for calculating the velocity and rate of joining of these particles. He produced more papers on this, which are still relevant to modern physics.
When it was found that rays given off by uranium could fog a photographic plate, Ernest looked at the process and decided it was similar to X rays but that uranium rays had two different types, alpha and beta rays, which when combined, ionized and penetrated air exceedingly well.

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