Ernest Rutherford

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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During 1898 he was offered a position as the chair of physics at McGill University in Montreal. In a letter to Mary he wrote “the salary is only 500 pounds but enough for you and me to start on.”
In 1900 Rutherford went back to his home country and got married to Mary. His first and only child was born a year later and was named Eileen.
Ernest soon branched out into an entirely new field: radioactivity. He began investigating radium, thorium and actinium, and by 1902 had the theory of radioactivity, which was a controversial idea, and hard to accept for many chemists. Nevertheless, Rutherford was awarded the Rumford medal in 1904, and in the same year produced a book, called ‘Radioactivity’, and his findings on the subject.
While he was at McGill, Ernest wrote 80 scientific papers, made many public appearances, and was offered chairs at many other universities. In 1907 he was offered the chair of physics at the Manchester University, and decided to take it, continuing to work on his alpha particle. By doing many tests with simple but ingenious apparatus, he was able to deduce Avogardo’s Number (the constant number of molecules in a molecular gram of any substance.)
In 1908 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for his work on Radioactivity.
1911 saw Rutherford’s greatest achievement, his nuclear theory of the atom. Hantaro Nagaoka presented a similar theorem in 1904 but it was not accepted, as it was widely believed that if electrons circumnavigated the nucleus they would radiate their energy, be pulled into the nucleus almost immediately, and lose their energy. However, in 1913 Neils Bohr found that electrons did orbit the nucleus without expelling any energy, proving Nagaoka and Rutherford’s predictions right.
In 1914 Rutherford was knighted for his contributions to science, and during WW1 he began working on detecting the Central Forces submarines by underwater accoustics, and by 1919 had surpassed Thomson, and became the Cavendish professor. After this, Ernest did not produce so many contributions or hypotheses, but many of his students, under his instruction, did.
He was always happy when something new was discovered, whether it be by him or his students, or somebody completely different, and was always, as a true scientist is, on a never ending quest for answers and the truth. This shows, when in 1934 Enrico Fermi separated many different elements with neutrons, proving that each had a different kind of atom, and there were only a set number of these substances. Rutherford wrote to him after he achieved this, congratulating him on “escaping from theoretical physics.”
Unfortunately his daughter Eileen died in 1931, but he still liked playing golf, reading, and got along well with others, his fairness earning him the respect of his students and peers.
Rutherford also enjoyed toying with totally new concepts and explaining them to be easily understood by others, particularly his students, had a happy home life, and generally had good health. This ended in 1937, when he passed away on October 19th, after contracting a short but unknown illness.

*Taken from page 1 of article ‘Ernest Rutherford’, encylodaedia Britannica, 1998.


Encyclopaedia Brittanica CD Rom, 1998 Edition.
World Book Encyclopedia, 1999 Edition. : Scientific based search engine
Chronicle of the 20th Century
Collins college dictionary, english.
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