The Kiwi who split the atom. 1917: Sir Ernest Rutherford, our greatest scientist’s biggest breakthrough.

Ernest Rutherford and Hans Geiger in the physics laboratory at Manchester University.

“I have broken the machine and touched the ghost of matter.”

So proclaimed Sir Ernest Rutherford a century ago, in the same year he became the first person to split the atom.

By that point, the Nelson-born godfather of modern atomic physics had already received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (in 1908) and a star scientist at Cambridge, McGill and Manchester universities.

His greatest triumphs came in three landmark discoveries, which forever changed modern science and created the field of nuclear physics.

In the first, for which he received his Nobel Prize, he conducted a clever experiment using an air-tight glass tube and radioactive radium emanation to prove that alpha particles are helium ions.

In doing so, Rutherford effectively had, said James Campbell in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biographies, “unravelled the mysteries of radioactivity, showing that some heavy atoms spontaneously decay into slightly lighter, and chemically different, atoms”.

“This discovery of the natural transmutation of elements first brought him to world attention.”

Later, Rutherford and his young student, Ernest Marsden – who would become a world-renowned physicist in his own right – conducted an experiment that allowed Rutherford to deduce that nearly all of the mass of an atom was concentrated in a nucleus a thousand times smaller than the atom itself.

This gave birth to the nuclear model of the atom – and later formed the basis for revealing the stable orbit of the atom.

In his third and most famous discovery, in 1917, Rutherford succeeded in splitting the atom itself, becoming the first human to create a nuclear reaction.

Albert Einstein called Rutherford a “second Newton” – but the famed scientist wasn’t so different from other ingenious Kiwi innovators.

Of his knack for unorthodox solutions to experiments, Rutherford noted his early years in New Zealand: “We don’t have the money, so we have to think.”

Jamie Morton, NZ Herald

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