The British physicist and chemist, Ernest Rutherford is known for his remarkable orbital theory of the atom in his discovery of Rutherford dispersion with his famous Gold Foil experiment. He is also known as the “father of nuclear physics”. He was honored with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 for his exploration into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances. Today he is ranked high among many other famous scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.
Early Life and Education:
Ernest Rutherford was born on August 30, 1871, Spring Grove near Nelson, New Zealand. He was the fourth child and the second son of James Rutherford, a farmer, and his wife Martha Thompson, an English schoolteacher. Ernest studied in a Government school and after he completed his schooling he won a scholarship to Nelson Collegiate School, where he was a well-liked boy and an ardent footballer. He was awarded his second scholarship in 1889 to study at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand. Here he completed his graduation with a B.A. in 1892 and an M.A. in 1893 with first-class bi-honors in mathematics and physics. His interest in research made him stay another year at the college where he completed his B.Sc. The same year he won his third scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory under Professor J.J Thomson. Later he left for Canada when he was given the opportunity to take the chair of physics at McGill University in Montreal.
In 1900 Rutherford married Mary Newton, only daughter of his landlady in Christchurch.
Contribution to the Field of Physics:
In a span of just three years Rutherford successfully marked out a wholly new branch of physics called radioactivity.
At Cavendish Laboratory, he discovered a detector for electromagnetic waves, an essential feature being a creative magnetizing coil containing tiny bundles of magnetized iron wire. He and Professor Thomson worked together and studied the behavior of ions observed in gases, the mobility of ions with respect to the force of the electric field, and on related topics like the photoelectric effect.
While experimenting on radioactivity during 1899, Rutherford discovered two distinctive types of radiation emitted by thorium and uranium which he named alpha and beta. These rays were distinguished on the basis of penetrating power.
At McGill Rutherford was accompanied by a young chemist, Frederick Soddy and together they investigated three groups of radioactive elements–radium, thorium, and actinium. In 1902 they reached to the conclusion that radioactivity was a course of action in which atoms of one element spontaneously disintegrated into atoms of a completely different element, which also remained radioactive. This view was however not accepted by chemists who strongly believed in the concept that matter cannot be destructed.
In 1903 he named the radiation discovered by Paul Villard, a French chemist as gamma. He found out that this radiation had a much greater penetration power than alpha and beta.
Rutherford received a great appreciation for his work by the Royal Society, which elected him a fellow in 1903 and awarded him the Rumford medal in 1904.
At Manchester, Ernest along with the support of H. Geiger developed a method for detecting a single alpha particle and counting the number emitted from radium. In 1909 along with H. Geiger and Ernest Marsden he carried out the Geiger–Marsden experiment which enabled him to understand the nuclear nature of atoms. This experiment led to the foundation of Rutherford model of the atom in 1911 through which he explained that a very small positively-charged nucleus was orbited by electrons. This was his greatest contribution to physics.
In 1919, which was his last year at Manchester became the first person to transform one element into another when he converted nitrogen into oxygen through a nuclear reaction. In 1921, Rutherford and his associate Niels Bohr (who postulated that electrons moved in specific orbits), gave their theory about the existence of neutrons. This theory was proved in 1932 by his colleague James Chadwick, who in 1935 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this innovation.
This great physicist died in Cambridge on October 19, 1937, following a short illness, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.