ERNEST RUTHERFORD: THE MAN WHO SORTED OUT THE ATOMIC STRUCTURE

Ernest Rutherford, first baron Rutherford of Nelson, OM PC PRS, or, simply, Lord Rutherford, invented the discipline of nuclear physics by discovering the atomic nucleus and is considered a primary pioneer in the field of nuclear research.

Rutherford was born near the town of Nelson, New Zealand. His parents had moved there from Perth, Scotland, to raise flax and children when New Zealand was still a rough frontier outpost of the British Empire. Young Ernest won academic scholarships, first to Nelson College and then to the University of New Zealand. After earning his BA, MA, and BSc in 1893, he performed two years of research at the university, looking into Hertz’s 1887 discovery of electromagnetic radiation from a spark gap.

impressed with his work on Hertzian oscillators, Cambridge University in England offered him a scholarship. His mother gave him the triumphant news from a received telegram, shouting it to him as he dug up potatoes in the family garden. Rutherford reportedly tossed away his spade, exclaiming, “That’s the last potato I’ll dig!” He was correct. His genuine genius, his ability to be continuously astonished, and his country-boy ability to improvise would converge in one of the finest talents ever in experimental physics, right in the middle of an exciting time in science when the basis of matter and energy required analysis. He moved to Cambridge in 1895 to work with the director J. J. Thomson, and they soon turned to investigations of the radioactiv­ity discovered by Becquerel, the Curies, and Roentgen. Over the next decades of his work, Rutherford would systematically dissect the atomic structure, discover the nucleus, and win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1905.

Rutherford’s most famous saying was made in 1933, when he was quoted in a newspaper article commenting offhand that any attempt to derive usable power from nuclear processes was pure "moonshine," and that such research would lead to noth­ing useful. This article so irritated the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard (1898-1964) that he immediately visualized the nuclear chain reaction and invented the nuclear reactor before nuclear fission was discovered.

electromagnetic radiation and indicated that they were tiny particles, an idea that was definitely backed up by J. J. Thomson’s work. Some of the particles would make it straight through, but some seemed to hit some­thing hard and be absorbed. He noticed that the amount of absorption of the cathode rays was roughly proportional to the density of the material they were shot through. Moreover, the rays could make it through inches of air but were scattered by it, indicating that the air was composed of particles that were heavier than the cathode ray particles.

From those observations, Lenard made an unacceptable conclusion: The atoms, of which matter is composed, are made of almost entirely empty space. He intensified his assertion with a metaphor, saying that the volume occupied by a cubic meter of platinum was as empty as outer space. Within four years, Rutherford would come to agree with him.

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