Rutherford wins Nobel Prize

10 December 1908

Painting of Ernest Rutherford by Oswald Birley, 1934 (Alexander Turnbull Library, G-826-2)

Ernest Rutherford’s discoveries about the nature of atoms shaped modern science and paved the way for nuclear physics. Albert Einstein called him a ‘second Newton’ who had ‘tunnelled into the very material of God’.

Born in 1871 near Nelson, Rutherford later claimed his inventiveness was honed on the challenges of helping out on his parents’ farm: ‘We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think’.

After gaining three degrees at Canterbury College, Rutherford began his international career when he won a scholarship to the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, of which he was to become director many years later.

While at Cambridge, he became known for his ability to make imaginative leaps and design experiments to test them. His discovery that heavy atoms have a tendency to decay into lighter atoms heralded modern techniques of carbon dating and led to his Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908.

The second great discovery of his career was made at the Victoria University of Manchester in 1909. With the help of experiments by assistants Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, Rutherford found that the atom consisted of a tiny, dense nucleus surrounded by oppositely charged electrons – a model that still forms the basis of atomic theory today.

In 1917 Rutherford made his third and perhaps most famous breakthrough. While bombarding lightweight atoms with alpha rays, he observed outgoing protons of energy larger than the incoming alpha particles. From this observation, he correctly deduced that the bombardment had converted nitrogen atoms into oxygen atoms. He had successfully ‘split’ the atom, ensuring his lasting scientific fame.

On a final trip to New Zealand in 1925, Rutherford gave talks to packed halls around the country. His call for government support for education and research helped establish the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) the following year.

Public acclaim continued after his death in 1937. Buildings and streets in a number of countries bear his name, and his image has appeared on commemorative stamps, and, since 1992, New Zealand’s $100 banknote. He is the only New Zealander to have an element – rutherfordium – named in his honour.