If asked to name a famous Kiwi scientist, most New Zealanders will reply with Ernest Rutherford. He is featured on the New Zealand $100 note, and throughout Aotearoa, there are many monuments and plaques erected to his memory. He is an ongoing inspiration for scientists around the world – for example, Rocket Lab named one of their engines after him.
Ernest Rutherford is internationally recognised as the ‘father of the nuclear physics’ and was responsible for a number of major discoveries in the fields of radioactivity and nuclear physics and for also changing the basic understanding of atomic science.
He was born in 1871 in Nelson, grew up on a farm and attended school and university in New Zealand. In 1894, he was awarded a scholarship to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, UK, as a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory. During his postgraduate study, he detected radio waves at half a mile and held the world record for the distance over which electromagnetic waves could be detected, but the record was soon broken by Guglielmo Marconi.
In 1898, he took up a post as the Macdonald Chair of Physics at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. He expanded upon the work of Henri Becquerel and Marie Curie to show that radiation was made up of alpha, beta and gamma rays. This work led to him being awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances”.
Rutherford returned to England in 1907 as Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester. He proposed a new structure for the atom, seeing it as a miniature solar system with the nucleus at the centre and electrons orbiting it. It was there in 1917 that he first achieved nuclear fission – or, as it is commonly referred to, splitting the atom – by firing naturally occurring alpha particles into nitrogen gas. After his discovery, scientists began to realise that the atom is not just a single particle but is made up of much smaller subatomic particles.
In 1919, he returned to Cambridge, taking up the role of Cavendish Professor of Physics. It was there that James Chadwick, under Rutherford’s guidance, discovered the neutron in 1932. This was also the year that students working under his direction performed the first fully controlled experiment to split the nucleus.
Later life and death
During his life, he received numerous awards and recognitions, such as a knighthood in 1914 and the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Hector Medal, and in 1931, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Rutherford of Nelson, of Cambridge – a title that became extinct upon his death.
He died in Cambridge in 1937 at just 66 years old, and his ashes were buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey, close to the tombs of Sir Isaac Newton and Lord Kelvin. The New York Times obituary read “It is given to but few men to achieve immortality, still less to achieve Olympian rank, during their own lifetime. Lord Rutherford achieved both.”
Nature of science
During his life, Ernest Rutherford was at the forefront of experimental physics. He and his teams devised ground-breaking experiments that provided evidence to back up many of his theories regarding the structure of atoms. This new evidence changed scientific knowledge in atomic and nuclear physics.
Lord Rutherford had a very wide influence teaching and collaborating with many other eminent scientists, a number of whom went on to win Nobel Prizes such as Frederick Soddy, John Cockcroft, James Chadwick and Cecil Powell.
He is the only New Zealander to have an element, rutherfordium (symbol Rf and atomic number 104), named in his honour. The Rutherford Medal is the highest science medal awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Learn more about how science knowledge and ideas change over time, the article Science over time: Standing on the shoulders of giants has links to our range of timelines, including our heritage scientists resources that feature other prominent New Zealand scientists. These articles and interactive timelines cover aspects of their life and work and how these fit into a wider science picture.
Discover more about the synthetic chemical element rutherfordium.