Born in New Zealand in 1871, he later moved to Canada and then England. In 1908 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of radioactive half-life. Beyond the understanding this discovery shed on radiation, it influenced many other fields (e.g., geophysics).
The atom was his life’s passion and he dug deep into the mysteries within.
The famous gold-foil radiation experiments that he conducted with Marsden and Geiger showed that the atom had an extremely tiny, but very dense nucleus. The rest of the atom had enormous shells of empty space where the electrons could be found. He couldn’t yet prove what the nucleus was but he had an uncanny sense that something powerful was there.
His research was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, but he again demonstrated remarkable intellectual flexibility and applied himself to acoustic technologies to detect submarines.
Shortly after the war ended, he fired a beam of alpha-radiation (He++) at a sealed tube of nitrogen and was able to prove the existence of a new particle, the proton, which he named in 1920.
𝜶 + 14N → 17O + p
It was also the first known artificial transmutation of one element into another. Nitrogen has been converted to oxygen.
In 1919, he was appointed as director of Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge where he continued his atomic research. Rutherford, like Curie, didn’t fully comprehend the dangers of radiation and was known to keep a lump of radioactive pitchblende ore in his pocket and desk. Years later his desk and office cost a small fortune to decontaminate.
Ernest Rutherford was a gregarious, larger-than-life character who was known for his loud voice and clumsy hands. Although he drove his students and assistant professors hard, he was also a caring and compassionate soul.
In 1932, his associate James Chadwick identified the neutron that Rutherford had long theorized must be present in the atom’s nucleus. Chadwick won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for this discovery.
In 1937, Rutherford was up in a tree in his yard, pruning a limb, when he fell. Immediately afterward, he experienced terrible abdominal pain and vomiting. His doctor suspected a loop of bowel had become trapped in a hernia and operated. The operative findings, however, were inconclusive. Rutherford’s pain and vomiting never went away and he died two days later.
Ernest Rutherford never saw the discovery of artificial nuclear fission in 1938 or the profound ways his work shaped the world. His ashes are entombed in Westminster Abbey near Sir Issac Newton and Lord Kelvin.