Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford was born on August 30, 1871, in Nelson, New Zealand, the fourth child in a family of seven sons and five daughters. His father James Rutherford, a Scottish wheelwright, emigrated to New Zealand in 1842. His mother Martha was an English schoolteacher, who also went to live there in 1855.

Ernest RutherfordErnest received his early education in Government schools and at the age of 16 entered Nelson Collegiate School. In 1889 he was awarded a University scholarship and he proceeded to the University of New Zealand, Wellington, where he entered Canterbury College, now the University of Canterbury. He graduated with an MA in 1893 with a double first in Mathematics and Physical Science, and he continued with research work at the College for a short time, receiving the B.Sc. degree the following year. Following that he was awarded an 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship, enabling him to go to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory under J. J. Thompson. After studying there for three years, an opportunity came when the Macdonald Chair of Physics at McGill University, Montreal, became vacant, and he left for Canada to take up the post.

Rutherford returned to England in 1907 to become Langworthy Professor of Physics in the University of Manchester, succeeding Sir Arthur Schuster, and in 1919 he accepted an invitation to succeed Sir Joseph Thomson as Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge.
Rutherford's first research, in New Zealand, was concerned with the magnetic properties of iron exposed to high-frequency oscillations, and his degree thesis was entitled Magnetization of Iron by High-Frequency Discharges. His second paper, Magnetic Viscosity, was published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute (1896) and contains a description of apparatus capable of measuring time intervals of a hundred-thousandth of a second.

During his first spell at the Cavendish Laboratory, he invented a detector for electromagnetic waves, an essential feature being an ingenious magnetizing coil containing tiny bundles of magnetized iron wire. He worked jointly with Thomson on the behaviour of  ions observed in gases which had been treated with X-rays, and also on topics such as the photoelectric effect. In 1898 he reported the existence of alpha and beta rays in uranium radiation and indicated some of their properties.
In Montreal, there were ample opportunities for research at McGill, and his work on radioactive bodies, particularly on the emission of alpha rays, continued in the Macdonald Laboratory. With R.B. Owens he studied the "emanation" of thorium and discovered a new noble gas, an isotope of radon, which was later to be known as thoron. Rutherford collaborated with Frederick Soddy in creating the "disintegration theory" of radioactivity which regards radioactive phenomena as an atomic – not a molecular - processes. The theory was supported by a large amount of experimental evidence, a number of new radioactive substances were discovered and their position in the series of transformations was fixed.

At Manchester, Rutherford continued his research on the properties of radium and of the alpha rays and, in conjunction with H. Geiger, a method of detecting a single alpha particle and counting the number emitted from radium was devised. In 1910, his investigations into the scattering of alpha rays, and the nature of the inner structure of the atom which caused such scattering, led to the postulation of his concept of the "nucleus". In 1912 Neils Bohr joined him at Manchester and he adapted Rutherford's nuclear structure to Planck’s  quantum theory and so obtained a theory of atomic structure which, with later improvements, mainly as a result of Heisenberg's concepts, remains valid to this day. In 1913, together with H. G. Moseley, he used cathode rays to bombard atoms of various elements and showed that the inner structures correspond with a group of lines which characterize the elements. Each element could then be assigned an atomic number and, more important, the properties of each element could be defined by this number. In 1919, during his last year at Manchester, he discovered that the nuclei of certain light elements, such as nitrogen, could be "disintegrated" by the impact of energetic alpha particles coming from some radioactive source, and that during this process fast protons were emitted. IN this way Rutherford was the first to deliberately transmute one element into another.

Rutherford was knighted in 1914; he was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1925, and in 1931 he was created First Baron Rutherford of Nelson, New Zealand, and Cambridge.
The Rutherford Birthplace in Nelson has been transformed into a tranquil haven where the story of his life and work is told using fourteen display panels and six sound stations in a garden setting. It is floodlit and open all hours, a little bit of science on our landscape. It was opened on the 6th of December 1991 by Sir Mark Oliphant and the Governor-General of New Zealand, Dame Cath Tizard, in the presence of all of Rutherford's grand-children.