Ernest Rutherford (1871 - 1937)

Ernest Rutherford was born on August 30, 1871, in Spring Grove (now in Brightwater), New Zealand, near Nelson. He was the second son in a family of seven sons and five daughters. He studied at Nelson Collegiate School, and in 1889 won a scholarship to study at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand. He graduated M.A. in 1893 with a double major in Mathematics and Physical Science, and he continued with research work at the College for a short time, receiving his Bachelor of Science degree the following year.

That same year, he was awarded an 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship, enabling him to go to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge as a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory under J.J. Thomson. There, he briefly held the world record for the distance over which wireless waves were detected. During the investigation of radioactivity, he coined the terms alpha, beta and gamma rays. In 1897, Rutherford was awarded his B.A. Research Degree and the Coutts-Trotter Studentship of Trinity College.

When the McDonald Chair of Physics at McGill University in Montreal became vacant in 1898, Rutherford left for Canada to take up the post. There, he did the work that gained him the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, demonstrating that radioactivity was the spontaneous disintegration of atoms. This is ironic given his famous remark, "In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting." He noticed that in a sample of radioactive material, it invariably took the same amount of time for half the sample to decay - its "half-life" - and created a practical application for this phenomenon using this constant rate of decay as a clock, which could then be used to help determine the actual age of the Earth that turned out to be much older than most scientists at the time believed.

In 1907, Rutherford took the chair of physics at the University of Manchester. There, he discovered the nuclear nature of atoms and was the world's first successful "alchemist": he converted nitrogen into oxygen. In 1919, he succeeded Sir Joseph Thomson as Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge. He also became Chairman of the Advisory Council, H.M., Government, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research; Professor of Natural Philosophy, Royal Institution, London; and Director of the Royal Society Mond Laboratory, Cambridge.

Under Rutherford's directorship, Nobel Prizes were awarded to James Chadwick for discovering the neutron, Cockcroft and Walton for splitting the atom using a particle accelerator and Appleton for demonstrating the existence of the ionosphere. His research was instrumental in the convening of the Manhattan Project.

By 1911, after studying the deflection of alpha particles shot through gold foil, he had established the nuclear theory of the atom. In June of 1919, Rutherford announced his success in artificially disintegrating nitrogen into hydrogen and oxygen by alpha particle bombardment. Rutherford then spent several years directing the development of proton accelerators (atom smashers).

Knighted in 1914, Rutherford was raised to the peerage as the first Baron Rutherford of Nelson in 1931-a barony that ceased to exist after his death. He died at Cambridge on October 19, 1937, and was buried at Westminster Abbey, in London.