Physicist Ernest Rutherford was the central figure in the study of radioactivity who led the exploration of nuclear physics.

Date of BirthAugust 30, 1871

Ernest Rutherford Obituary

Date of BirthAugust 30, 1871

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Date of DeathOctober 19, 1937

Ernest Rutherford Obituary

from Spring Grove, Tasman, New Zealand

Synopsis

Chemist and physicist Ernest Rutherford was born August 30, 1871, in Spring Grove, New Zealand. A pioneer of nuclear physics and the first to split the atom, Rutherford was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his theory of atomic structure, as well as 13 other awards for his discoveries and research. Dubbed the “Father of the Nuclear Age,” Rutherford died in Cambridge, England, on October 19, 1937, of a strangulated hernia. 

Education and Early Career

Born on a farm in New Zealand, the fourth of 12 children, Rutherford completed a degree at the University of New Zealand and began teaching unruly schoolboys. He was released from this task by a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he became J. J. Thomson’s first graduate student at the Cavendish Laboratory. There he began experimenting with the transmission of radio waves, went on to join Thomson’s ongoing investigation of the conduction of electricity through gases, and then turned to the field of radioactivity just opened up by Henri Becquerel and Pierre and Marie Curie.

A Series of Discoveries

A consummate experimentalist, Rutherford (1871–1937) was responsible for a remarkable series of discoveries in the fields of radioactivity and nuclear physics. He discovered alpha and beta rays, set forth the laws of radioactive decay, and identified alpha particles as helium nuclei. Most important, he postulated the nuclear structure of the atom: experiments done in Rutherford’s laboratory showed that when alpha particles are fired into gas atoms, a few are violently deflected, which implies a dense, positively charged central region containing most of the atomic mass.

Major accomplishments

Invented the early detector of radio waves- the 1880s

Discovered alpha and beta radioactivity 1898

Discovered the principle of half-life and applied it to radiometric dating

Analyzed the gold foil experiments to discover Rutherford scattering

Formulated the Rutherford model of the atom in 1911

Discovered the proton- 1917

Theorized the existence of the neutron-1912

Influence upon society

Rutherford's experiments led him to invent a detector that we know as radio waves. The radio receiver became apart of the communications revolution know as wireless telegraphy. 

 Honors

Rutherford garnered many honors, he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1908; he was made a knight and then a peer with a seat in the House of Lords. For the ultimate honor, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.