A Blupete Biography Page

Lord Rutherford
A Portrait I was once again struck, in my review of Rutherford's life, of how many great persons in history have had simple beginnings. Though he was to become one of the greatest pioneers of subatomic physics, Ernest Rutherford came from simple people, a family with "heart, head, hand." He was born in Spring Grove1, South Island, New Zealand, the fourth of twelve children. His father was a "wheelwright and flaxmiller." Whether in spite of, or because of these humble circumstances2, Ernest got a proper start in life. He first attended state schools, then, with the assistance of scholarships, went off to Canterbury College, Christchurch, where undoubtedly he was exposed to a liberal education. In 1892, Rutherford, having majored in mathematics and physics, graduated from Canterbury.

Young Rutherford stayed on at Canterbury College for a further year, teaching and studying. His studies that year included a study on the properties of iron in high-frequency alternating magnetic fields; he was to publish the results.3 Soon, he received an invitation from Cambridge which brought him off to England. He arrived at Cambridge (Trinity) in 1895 and began to work under "J.J." Thomson4 at the prestigious Cavendish Laboratory. There he was to work on electromagnetic waves.

In 1898, the 27 year old Rutherford came to Canada to head up the physics department of McGill University, Montreal. McGill then became the hotbed for early work in subatomic physics. Rutherford and his team5 were on the forefront of a new science. The research carried out revolved around the investigation into the phenomenon of natural radiation, a form of which, the x-ray, had been spoken of by Roentgen at a meeting of the Physio-Medical Society of Wurzburg in 1895.6 Just what were these rays, that, were capable of passing in various degrees through many substances impervious to light? This was the central question for Rutherford during his McGill days.

In 1907, Rutherford returned to England to accept a chair at the University of Manchester. Here, at Manchester, Rutherford continued his work on the various forms of radiation. It was here, too, at Manchester, that Rutherford was to work with Hans Geiger (1882-1945), who had developed a method of detecting the emitted particles, and, to count them. By 1910, Rutherford was beginning to understand the nature of the inner structure of the atom which led him to postulate the existence within the atom of a concentrated part, the "nucleus": this, indeed, was to be Rutherford's greatest contribution to physics. "This," as we find in Chambers, "Led to a revolutionary conception of the atom as a miniature universe in which the mass is concentrated in the nucleus surrounded by planetary electrons."7 In turn, during 1920, Rutherford was to predict the existence of the neutron, which, a colleague of his, Sir James Chadwick (1891-1974), was to in fact to discover in 1932, and for which Chadwick was to receive a Nobel in 1935.

In 1908, Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for "his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances." It was somewhat surprising to hear that Rutherford, the physicist, was to win the prize in chemistry, rather than in physics. As Rutherford's biographer, Norman Feather, was to point out, it probably was an error on the part of those at Stockholm, as, Rutherford ought to have won the prize in physics rather than in chemistry. But, while the fields of chemistry and physics up to Rutherford's time were clear enough, nuclear physics might have just as easily been called nuclear chemistry; the new science, as an official of the Swedish Academy was to say at the time, was "neither physics nor chemistry, yet which is, at the same time, both physics and chemistry."

During the first World War, Rutherford worked on the practical problem of submarine detection by underwater acoustics. In his later years, Rutherford was to accept an invitation, 1919, to become the Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge.

In addition to 150 original papers, Rutherford was to publish a number of books, including: Radioactivity (1904); Radioactive Transformations (1906), The Electrical Structure of Matter (1926), The Artificial Transmutation of the Elements (1933) and The Newer Alchemy (1937). In addition to being knighted in 1914 and being made a Lord of the realm in 1931, Rutherford was to take responsible positions in a number of learned societies including his presidency of the Royal Society from 1925 to 1930. He counted among his rewards: the Rumford Medal (1905) and the Copley Medal (1922), the Bressa Prize (1910), the Albert Medal (1928), the Faraday Medal (1930); and, so too, numerous honorary doctorates from Universities all over the world.

"Rutherford led us to the confines of knowledge in respect of the ultimate structure and constitution of matter ... he opened a new world, the world of the atomic nucleus, for the exploration of which new experimental techniques were required, and for the description of which a new language."8
At the age of 66, at Cambridge, Rutherford was to die and his ashes were placed in Westminster Abbey not far from the remains of Newton and Kelvin.


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1 Spring Grove is now known, I think, as Brightwater; it is near Nelson.

2 His grand parents had emigrated to New Zealand in 1842. His father was born at Dundee; his mother (nee Thompson), Sussex. The Rutherford family moved about somewhat, from Brightwater, then to Foxhill, then to Havelock, and eventually to the North Island, Pungarehu. Add to his family circumstances, the circumstances of New Zealand in the latter part of the 19th century -- well, as his biographer, Norman Feather was to write, "all this does not predicate the traditional background for the nurture of genius, least of all genius in the realm of science." However -- there was the Scot's respect for education; a mother who had taught school; and, more generally, parents who were to recognize a talented child and make the necessary sacrifices to see to his proper education.

3 One of these early papers contained "a description of a time-apparatus capable of measuring time intervals of a hundred-thousandth of a second."

4 Sir Joseph John Thomson (1856-1940) who was awarded a Nobel prize for physics in 1906.

5 Otto Hahn (1879-1968) was one of these men with Rutherford at McGill, I believe in 1905-06. Hahn was to return to Germany and carry out his own studies and was one of the first to come up with chemical evidence of nuclear fission, which, thankfully was not appreciated by the Nazi regime. In 1944, Hahn was awarded a Nobel prize. Another Nobel prize winner, 1921, who was with Rutherford at Montreal, was Frederick Soddy (1877-1956). It was Soddy who gave the name isotope to one of the elements that he had discovered.

6 Roentgen's paper created a sensation in the scientific community and had the effect of plunging "all the physical laboratories in Europe and America into feverish activity." In a letter directed to his fiancee back home, Rutherford took note of the fevered activity: "The professor [Thomson?] has been very busy lately over the new method of photography discovered by Professor Roentgen ... the great object is to find the theory of the matter before anyone else, for nearly every professor in Europe is now on the warpath."

7 In 1912, Niels Bohr came to Manchester and he picked up on Rutherford's nuclear structure and expanded the understanding of the subatomic world. It is with the this understanding of the "Rutherford-Bohr atom" that nuclear physics was born. It should be noted that these pioneering nuclear physicists had more than their share of skeptical observers. The new science was the realization of the alchemist's dream; and, it was being discovered, that it was happening naturally throughout all of nature. This proposition was too much for the traditionalists who believed in the immutability of the atom. Indeed, these hypothesizes that drove the research at Montreal and at Cambridge during the turn of the century aroused incredulity and outright hostility. (See, Norman Feather's piece of Rutherford as contained in Nobel Prize Winners (Westport, Conn.: Associated Booksellers, 1957) p. 205.)

8 Norman Feather, op. cit., p. 214.


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Peter Landry