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Rutherford, Lord Ernest

Category: Genius


Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson, OM, FRS (30 August 1871 – 19 October 1937) was a New Zealand nuclear physicist.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 " for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances”.

He was knighted in 1914. In 1916 he was awarded the Hector Memorial Medal and in 1919, Rutherford became Director of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Under his leadership the neutron was discovered by James Chadwick in 1932 and in the same year the first experiment to split the nucleus in a fully controlled manner was performed by students working under his direction, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton.

He was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1925 and raised to the peerage as Baron Rutherford of Nelson, in 1931.  Between 1925 and 1930 he served as President of the Royal Society, and later as president of the Academic Assistance Council which helped almost 1,000 university refugees from Germany.

After his death in 1937, he was honoured by being interred with the greatest scientists of the United Kingdom, near Sir Isaac Newton's tomb in Westminster Abbey. The chemical element rutherfordium (element 104) was named after him in 1997.

Scientific achievements

Rutherford, J J Thompson and all the people working on this problem - the young chemist Frederick Soddy (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1921)  William Crookes, Marie Curie and so on were essentially discovering that the atom was not a solid particle but a ‘thing’ which could be further dissected as it were.  In 1902, for example, Rutherford and Soddy produced a "Theory of Atomic Disintegration" to account for all their experiments. Up till then atoms were assumed to be the indestructable basis of all matter and although Curie had suggested that radioactivity was an atomic phenomenon, the idea of the atoms breaking up was a radically new idea.


Atom type changing

 Rutherford discovered the concept of radioactive half-life and proved that ‘radioactivity’ involved the nuclear transmutation of one chemical element to another. 

Rutherford and Soddy demonstrated that when one atom type becomes another atom type ‘radioactivity’ was released.

The Egg

Let is now imagine that actually atoms are all the same.  They are ‘eggs’ containing the functions of the universe.  Depending on the aggregate type [at the level here the chemical elements] to which they belong, the functions they display to any event correspond to that type – only those functions are turned on. 

What Rutherford showed is that the shell of the Egg can be broken to expose the soft white of the functions within, and that functions can be turned on and off by bombarding them with ‘events’.  Or, as in the case of radioactive substances, they are spontaneously changing, in effect, they are transforming themselves from one thing to another.

Analogously it is as if we were witnessing an orange turning into an apple.

Discovery of alpha and beta radioactivity

 By studying uranium and the way it spontaneously changed itself from one thing to another, Rutherford discovered and also differentiated and named alpha and beta radiation. In 1903, Rutherford considered a type of radiation discovered (but not named) by French chemist Paul Villard in 1900, as an emission from radium, and realised that this observation must represent something different from his own alpha and beta rays, due to its very much greater penetrating power. Rutherford therefore gave this third type of radiation the name of gamma ray. All three of Rutherford's terms are in standard use today – other types of radioactive decay have since been discovered, but Rutherford's three types are among the most common.


Discovery of atomic nucleus (Rutherford model)

Top: Expected results: alpha particles passing through the
plum pudding model of the atom undisturbed.  The plum
pudding in this case being without the sixpence
Bottom: Observed results: a small portion of the particles
were deflected, indicating a small, concentrated centre.
Note that the image is not to scale; in reality the nucleus is
vastly smaller than the electron shell

Rutherford performed his most famous work after receiving the Nobel prize in 1908. Along with Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden in 1909, he carried out the Geiger–Marsden experiment, which demonstrated the nuclear nature of atoms by deflecting alpha particles passing through a thin gold foil.

Rutherford was inspired to ask Geiger and Marsden in this experiment to look for alpha particles with very high deflection angles, of a type not expected from any theory of matter at that time. Such deflections, though rare, were found, and proved to be a smooth but high-order function of the deflection angle. It was Rutherford's interpretation of this data that led him to formulate the Rutherford model of the atom in 1911 – that a very small charged nucleus, containing much of the atom's mass, was orbited by low-mass electrons.

He conducted research that led to the first "splitting" of the atom in 1917 in a nuclear reaction between nitrogen and alpha particles, in which he also discovered (and named) the proton.

In effect, Rutherford had discovered, via experiment, what had been known in mystic circles for generations upon generations – he had discovered the layout of the Egg in outline.  See Map of the Egg.  There was still the confusion inherent in leaps of this kind that the electrons, nucleus and so on were ‘physical’ as opposed to analogously software constructs, but this was the first time science had validated revelation – mystic theory!

The observation we have for him is thus especially interesting as Rutherford obtained the insight and inspiration needed to both explain the results and conduct the experiments from ….. revelation!

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington - In The Nature of the Physical World (1928
When we compare the universe as it is now supposed to be with the universe as we had ordinarily preconceived it, the most arresting change is not the rearrangement of space and time by Einstein but the dissolution of all that we regard as most solid into tiny specks floating in void. That gives an abrupt jar to those who think that things are more or less what they seem. The revelation by modern physics of the void within the atom is more disturbing than the revelation by astronomy of the immense void of interstellar space.


Bohr's Model - functions floating in a sea of energy
islands of system

Ernest Rutherford was the son of James Rutherford, a farmer, and his wife Martha Thompson, originally from Hornchurch, Essex, England. James had emigrated to New Zealand from Perth, Scotland, "to raise a little flax and a lot of children". Ernest was born at Brightwater, near Nelson, New Zealand.  He won a scholarship to study at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand, where he gained his BA, MA and BSc.  In 1895 Rutherford was awarded a Research Fellowship to travel to England for postgraduate study at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

He was among the first of the 'aliens' (those without a Cambridge degree) allowed to do research at the university, under the inspiring leadership of J. J. Thomson, and the newcomers aroused jealousies from the more conservative members of the Cavendish fraternity. With Thomson's encouragement, he managed to detect radio waves at half a mile and briefly held the world record for the distance over which electromagnetic waves could be detected, though when he presented his results at the British Association meeting in 1896, he discovered he had been outdone by another lecturer, by the name of Marconi.

In 1898 Thomson recommended Rutherford for a position at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Rutherford was accepted. In 1900 he gained a DSc from the University of New Zealand. In 1907 Rutherford returned to Britain to take the chair of physics at the University of Manchester.

During World War I, he worked on a top secret project to solve the practical problems of submarine detection by sonar.  In Manchester, he continued to work with alpha radiation.

For some time before his death, Rutherford had a small hernia, which he had neglected to have fixed, and it became strangulated, causing him to be violently ill. Despite an emergency operation in London, he died four days afterwards of what physicians termed "intestinal paralysis", at Cambridge.

 Chaim Weizmann -Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizman (1949)

As scientists the two men were contrasting types—Einstein all calculation, Rutherford all experiment ... There was no doubt that as an experimenter Rutherford was a genius, one of the greatest. He worked by intuition and everything he touched turned to gold. He had a sixth sense.

(Reminiscence comparing his friend, Ernest Rutherford, with Albert Einstein, whom he also knew.)


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