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Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937)

Nuclear physicist

Ernest Rutherford was a New Zealand chemist who lived in the late 19th century who specialized in radioactivity and so, played a huge role in establishing the study of nuclear physics.

He was born on the 30th of August 1871 in New Zealand to a farmer, James Rutherford and his Wife Martha. He was the fourth of 12 children.

Rutherford read his first science book when he was just 10 years old went on to study mathematics, mathematical physics, physical sciences, geology and chemistry.

During his research studies in Cambridge, England, he first started experimenting on electro-magnetic waves with a device that he modified.

His special interest in radioactivity stemmed from the discovery of radioactive atoms, and he discovered two types of radioactive rays that he named ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’ rays.

In his many years of research in radioactivity, he also found that heavy atoms could be broken down into lighter atoms, and he published his first book on radioactivity in 1904.

He also discovered that radioactive material had a “half life”, which means that they took the same amount of time for half of the material to perish.

In 1907 he teamed up with two other scientists to examine the make-up of the atom in an experiment called the Geiger-Marsden’, which revealed that the atom had a nucleus (a centre).

The model these scientists built to prove this result was of a tiny nucleus surrounded by electrons that orbited it, like the planets orbiting the sun. This model is still used to explain the atomic theory today.

For his extraordinary work in the area of nuclear physics, the Queen of England knighted Rutherford in 1914, and from then on, he was known as Sir Ernest Rutherford.

Rutherford’s work led him to make it possible to split the atom too. He did this by flooding light atoms with the alpha rays (that he had discovered), and by changing nitrogen into oxygen.

He made it his mission to further scientific knowledge by giving lectures in both England and New Zealand, and even tried to convince the government to invest in scientific education.

His efforts paid off when the New Zealand government opened the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1926.

In 1931, he was given another honour from New Zealand, where he was made a peer. This made him Ernest, Lord Rutherford.

He was presented with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for all his work in elements and radioactive metal in 1908.

Rutherford has craters on both the Moon and Mars and an element named after him. The craters are called ‘Rutherford’, while the element is ‘Rutherfordium’.

Rutherford’s contribution to modern science cannot be denied. He brought in the beginning of the nuclear age not only as scientific research, but also as education.

He trained many great scientists who went on to affect the world in different ways.

He had the wonderful ability of producing powerful results from simple ideas, and proving them using very simple devices.