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Ernest Rutherford

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Ernest Rutherford (August 30, 1871 - October 19, 1937) was a New Zealand born physicist who is often dubbed as the father of physics due to his achievements and inventions; he discovered and named the existence of alpha particles, beta decays, and gamma rays. Ernest, in gold foil experiment, claimed that alpha particles were actually helium nuclei. He redefined radioactivity throughout a series of experiment, becoming the first scientist ever to artificially break up an element. He rebuilt the atomic and nuclear structure after his gold foil experiment. Ernest became the first to identify and name the positively charged and neutrally charged particles: protons and neutrons. Ernest, because of his revolutionary works, received much recognition, including the Nobel Prize in 1908 for chemistry. [1]

Of all created comforts, God is the lender; you are the borrower, not the owner. Ernest Rutherford [2]


Ernest Rutherford attended Canterbury College in Christchurch, New Zealand. The building in the picture was a former University of Canterbury campus; today, it is the Art Center of the university.

Ernest Rutherford was born to James and Martha Rutherford in Brightwater, New Zealand, when it was a British Colony, on August 30th 1871 at Spring Grove. He had twelve siblings and he was the fourth oldest. His father, James, was a Scottish who worked as an engineer. His mother was an English who became a renowned teacher at the Spring Grove school. The children of the Rutherfords were surrounded by scholars and thus received an excellent education. [3]

Ernest, despite his latter achievements, was just an ordinary child; he did family chores and swimming to have fun with his friends. His family often had to move due to his father’s business: Ernest and his family had to move from Spring Grove to Foxhill in 1876; from Foxhill to Havelock in 1883; and in 1888 from Havelock to Taranaki. When Ernest was still in Foxhill School, he received his first science book, which gave him an incredible and surprising knowledge in the field of science. This book also encouraged Ernest to construct a canon. In Havelock, after losing two of his siblings and failing in an exam, Ernest, at the age of 16, won a scholarship to Nelson College on the second exam. In Nelson College, Ernest quickly gained popularity and became the leader, playing in the rugby team. He attended the college for three years until he yet won another scholarship to the University of New Zealand. [3]

Ernest eventually attended Canterbury College in Christchurch (from 1890 to 1894), where he participated in rugby, a student debating group called the Dialectic Society, the graduation day celebrations, and the Science Society. In 1892, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mathematics and also in Latin. Surprisingly, he also passed major classes such as Applied Mathematics, English, French, and Physics. When he was a senior, he received a scholarship in recognition of his mathematical skill. Ernest, with the scholarship, decided to achieve Masters degree in college, taking both mathematics and physics. As Ernest continued his study, he became the father of the field of physics. [3]

Ernest was married to Mary Newton, daughter of Arthur and Mary de Renzy Newton, in 1900. They had only one child named Eileen Rutherford, who latter married R.H. Fowler, a physicist. On October 19, 1937, Ernest passed away in Cambridge, England, and his remains were buried in Westminster Abbey near those of Sir Isaac Newton. He was only 66 years old. [4]

As a Statesman

Ernest was not only a gifted scientist, but also worked to grant women the same privileges as men. He also supported the freedom of the British Broadcasting Corporation from government censorship, talked frequently about his experiment and work on the radio, and so on. He was elected as the Board of Management of the Commissioners of the Exhibition in 1851 and supported the cause of scholarship to university students. Ernest also became the Chairman of the Advisory Council of the British Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and aided the scientific matters and laboratory experiments. His hobby, other than participating in scientific researches, was to play golf on Sundays. During World War II, Ernest Rutherford was elected as the President of Academic Assistance Council and supported academics. As Ernest helped science and academics, many scientists came to America, bringing many scientific facts from Europe to the New World. Ernest Rutherford, although not recognized by many people this day, worked toward world peace, banning the use of airplanes in warfare and supporting Democracy. [3]

Achievements and Inventions

Ernest Rutherford discovered the existence of alpha particles.

Ernest Rutherford conducted his first experiment in New Zealand researching the magnetic properties of iron. This experiment is now known as High-Frequency Discharges. Ernest was one of the first scientists to conduct an experiment with high-frequency properties. He eventually performed an another experiment on Magnetic Viscosity and wrote an essay on it. The paper was published in New Zealand in 1896. [4] Ernest Rutherford became one of the first scientists to claim that radioactively decayed energy in an atom was millions of times that of a chemical bond. Ernest was the first ever to state that the energy was internal to all atoms, thus explaining that the energy of an atom could never be extorted efficiently. [3]

When Ernest moved to Cambridge and attended college, Professor Thomson recognized his intelligence. Thomson frequently worked and conducted experiment with Ernest. Later, Ernest contrived an electromagnetic wave detector at the Cavendish Laboratory. This detector contains many magnetized iron wire. Ernest and Thomson continually worked on the behaviour of the ions, such as its strength of the electric field, photoelectric effect on the ion, its mobility, and its reaction with X-rays. In 1898 Ernest claimed the existence of alpha particles (a helium nucleus emitted by a radioactive substance) and also beta rays in uranium radiation, indicating the chemical properties of these substances. Because of this world-changing discovery, Ernest Rutherford received the Nobel Prize in 1908 in chemistry. He continued to research alpha rays and radioactive particles in the Macdonald Laboratory in Montreal. After a series of experiment with R.B. Owens on the emanation of thorium, Ernest reported the existence of a new noble gas, which was an isotope of radon (later renamed as thoron). Frederick Soddy, an erudite from Oxford, also worked Ernest in creating the disintegration theory of radioactivity. This theory originally proclaimed that radioactive phenomena was a molecular process. The two scientists, however, contradicted it, regarding the radioactive phenomena as an atomic process. Ernest and Frederick amalgamated a myriad of empirical substantiations, revising the original theory. Otto Hahn was an another renowned scientist who worked under Ernest at the Montreal Laboratory from 1905-06. [4]

Ernest continued to carry on his experiment on the radium emanation and the alpha rays at Manchester. He started his research on detecting a single alpha particle and counting the alpha particles emitted from radium with H. Geiger. In 1910, as Ernest continued his research on alpha rays and the inner structure of the atom, he discovered the existence of another particle. He named this particle the nucleus, which revolutionized the field of physics. He stated that all positive particles, protons, and the whole mass of the atom simultaneously concentrated at the center of the atom. Niels Bohr joined Ernest's experiment in 1912 at Manchester. Bohr learned the nuclear structure and worked with Max Planck to construct quantum atomic theory. This theory, having been improved by many scientists including Heisenberg, still remains valid and is used in many atomic researches and experiments. in 1913, Ernest collaborated with H.G. Moseley on cathode ray experiment, declaring that inner structures of an element characterize and identify the element as a whole. With this new discovery, Ernest and Moseley gave each element atomic number and marshaled them with this number. In 1919, Ernest established a new discovery, expounding that the impact of excited alpha particles emitted from some radioactive source could disintegrate the nuclei of nitrogen and some other light elements, and that fast protons were emitted during this process. Blackett, a well-known scientist, after conducting an experiment with the cloud chamber, claimed that the nitrogen was, in fact, transmuted into an oxygen isotope. This means that Ernest technically became the first scientist ever to change the form of an element into another. [4]

Ernest worked as a leader of the Cavendish Laboratory and also taught many latter Nobel Prize laureates such as Chadwick, Blackett, Cockcroft, and Walton. Ernest published books such as: Radioactivity (1904); Radioactive Transformation (1906), being his Sillim an Lectures at Yale University; Radiation from Radioactive Substances, with James Chadwick and C.D. Ellis (1919, 1930); The Electrical Structure of Matter (1926); The Artificial Transmutation of the Elements (1933); and The Newer Alchemy (1937). These books and essays explicitly detail Ernest's empirical findings and discoveries. [4]

Gold Foil Experiment

Ernest Rutherford claimed that the alpha particles were scattered by the nucleus.

Ernest Rutherford researched on the effect of X-rays after he graduated from college with Hang Geiger, his assistant. As a discoverer of radioactivity (electromagnetic rays in nuclear decay), Ernest began his research on particles released from uranium metal and its compounds. In order to count the particles emitted from the metal, he built a screen covered with zinc sulfide which, when it was hit by a particle, discharged a flash of light. In a series of time and energy-consuming experiments, Ernest and Geiger decided to count the flashes of light emitted by the ZnS screen. The two observed that as the beam passed through a thin metal, the size of the beam enlarged. Geiger then gauged the angle where the particles were reflected by the gold metal foil. Geiger claimed that it was only one degree when the metal foil made contact with the beam as Ernest had anticipated. Ernest had expected these particles to contain large mass and to move swiftly. He, thus, concluded that all of the particles were capable of breaking through the foil, but there was, in fact, a slight collision between the particles and the foil. After a while, Ernest Marsden, one of Ernest’s assistant scientists, discovered that via angles larger than 90, a small fraction, approximately 1 in 20,000, of the particles could be dispersed. Ernest regarded this discovery as the most incredible phenomenon in his whole entire life. [5]

As a result of the gold foil experiment, Ernest Rutherford was able to offer a new atomic model; he claimed that the atom consisted mainly of nothing.

In order to account for this reaction, Ernest postulated that the positively charged particles and the atomic mass were concentrated in a small fraction. Ernest, using his prodigious mathematical ability, attempted to give an equation that explained for this reaction. In the equation, he said that the thickness of the foil and the square of the charge on the nucleus were directly proportional to the particles dispersed at an angle. On the other hand, the velocity of the particles was inversely proportional to the angle. However, his two assistants, Geiger and Marsden, conducted many experiments and confirmed these equations. [5]

In 1911, Ernest Rutherford published the result of this foil experiment, altering the old atomic model. Ernest’s new atomic model and theory are still valid today. In the published work, Ernest explained that the protons (the positively charged particles) and the atomic mass are concentrated in a small fraction of the total volume of the atom. Ernest Rutherford thus discovered a new existence in an atom and then named this the nucleus. [5]

In the experiment he conducted, almost all the particles penetrated through the gold foil and few of the ones that penetrated made contact with the nucleus of the gold atom. As this reaction occurred, protons and nucleus repulsed each other due to their charges. These particles, later named as the alpha particles, as it reacted with the nucleus, affected the angle of the alpha particle. Ernest then measured the size of the nucleus as it affected the angle of the alpha particles. He calculated and predicted that the radius of the nucleus must be at least 10,000 times smaller than the radius of the atom as a whole. Ernest, thus, became the first scientist to claim that the atom chiefly consisted of nothing, or empty space. Ernest Rutherford discovered and named the positively charged particles as the protons which existed in the nucleus. He also named the neutral particles in the nucleus as the neutron whose existence was not confirmed until 1932 by James Chadwick. [5]


If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.
Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine.
All science is either physics or stamp collecting.


Ernest Rutherford's signature.
  • Radioactivity (1904)
  • Radioactive Transformations (1906)
  • being his Silliman Lectures at Yale University (1919)
  • Radiation from Radioactive Substances, with James Chadwick and C.D. Ellis (1930)
  • The Electrical Structure of Matter (1926)
  • The Artificial Transmutation of the Elements (1933)
  • The Newer Alchemy (1937) [4]


Ernest Rutherford's statue in Brightwater, New Zealand.
  • won the Nobel Prize in 1908 in chemistry.
  • knighted in 1914.
  • appointed to the Order of Merit in 1925.
  • elected First Baron Rutherford of Nelson, New Zealand, and Cambridge in 1931.
  • elected as the President of Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903 from 1925 to 1930.
  • awarded the Rumford Medal in 1905.
  • received the Copley Medal in 1922.
  • given the Royal society, the Bressa Prize of the Turin Academy of Science in 1910.
  • won the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts in 1928.
  • received the Faraday medal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1930.
  • given the D.Sc. degree of the University of New Zealand and honorary dctorates from the University of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, McGill, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Yale, Glasgow, Giessen, Copenhagen, Cambridge, Dublin, Durham, Oxford, Liverpool, Toronto, Bristol, Cape Town, London, and Leeds. [4]


Brief summary of Ernest Rutherford's life [7]


  1. Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) Anne Marie Helmenstine,, 25 Apr. 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ernest Rutherford Quotes - BrainyQuote BrainyQuote, 25 Apr. 2011.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Ernest Rutherford John Campbell, Rutherford Scientist Supreme, 25 Apr. 2011
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1908 Ernest Rutherford The Noble Prize, 24 Apr. 2011.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Ernest Rutherford, 25 Apr. 2011
  6. 6.0 6.1 Ernest Rutherford quotes, 25 Apr. 2011.
  7. Ernest Rutherford jenniferluo,, 2 Aug. 2008.