9 Facts to Know about Ernest Rutherford "the Father of Nuclear Physics"

From founding the scientific discipline of nuclear physics to his love for sports cars, here are some facts to know about Ernest Rutherford.
Christopher McFadden
Ernest Rutherford at McGill UniversityWikimedia Commons

Ernest Rutherford is one of the most accomplished and important scientists of all time. Widely considered the best scientific experimentalist since Michael Faraday, he helped lay the foundations for an entirely new scientific discipline: Nuclear physics.


What are some must-know facts about Ernest Rutherford and nuclear physics?

And so, without further ado, here are some must-know facts about Ernest Rutherford and his role in the foundation of nuclear physics. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Ernest Rutherford was born in New Zealand

facts about Ernest Rutherford pic
Source: The Royal Society/Twitter

Best known as one of the greatest British scientists of all time, Ernest Rutherford was actually born in New Zealand in 1871. His father, James Rutherford, moved there from Scotland when he was a child in the mid-19th Century to work on a farm.

New Zealand had recently been settled by Europeans at the time. Rutherford's mother, Martha Thompson, also moved to New Zealand from England when she was also still a child. She worked as a schoolteacher before marrying James Rutherford and helped raise their 12 children.

Ernest Rutherford was the fourth child and second son of his proud parents. 

2. Ernest Rutherford was second only to Michael Faraday as an experimentalist

Ernest Rutherford is widely considered to be the greatest scientific experimentalist since the equally talented Michael Faraday. His lifetime's work would revolve, primarily, with the study of radioactivity. 

Through his experiments, Rutherford would develop his concept of the nuclear atom which ultimately drove the study of nuclear physics thereafter. For his exceptional work, Rutherford would receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908 and was also appointed the president of the esteemed Royal Society between 1925 and 1930. 

He was later also appointed the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1923, was conferred the Order of Merit in 1925, and was raised to the peerage as Lord Rutherford of Nelson in 1931.

3. Rutherford showed great promise from a young age

ernest rutherford canterbury
Source: Ray Perkins/Twitter

While in New Zealand, Rutherford attended free state schools until 1886. He won a scholarship to attend Nelson Collegiate School -- a private secondary school. 

There he showed great promise and excelled in nearly every subject on the syllabus. He showed particular skill in mathematics and science. 

Rutherford later won yet another scholarship in 1890 for Canterbury College in Christchurch -- one of four campuses for the University of New Zealand. At the time, it was a small school with only 8 lecturers and around 300 students

Thankfully for Rutherford, his professors were excellent teachers who ignited, and nurtured, a fascination for scientific investigation. They also instilled in him the importance of good scientific rigor.

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Rutherford graduated with a B.A. degree and won yet another scholarship for postgraduate study at Canterbury.

4. Rutherford appeared to like collecting degrees

After completion of his B.A. at Canterbury College in Christchurch, he stayed on to complete an M.A. first-class degree in physical science, mathematics, and mathematical physics. He was encouraged by his professors to stay on another year in order to conduct some independent research.

This he did and made some significant investigations of the ability of a high-frequency electrical discharge to magnetize iron. Rutherford's work earned him yet another degree, this time a B.Sc. degree in 1894. 

A year later, he won yet another scholarship at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University. This scholarship was funded by profits made during the famous Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. 

While at Cambridge, Rutherford studied under J.J. Thomson -- then Europe's leading light in electromagnetic radiation. Rutherford's future was sealed. 

5. Ernest Rutherford actually coined the terms "Alpha" and "Beta" with regards to radiation

ernest rutherford rays
Source: Ehamberg/Wikimedia Commons

Another interesting fact that you need to know about Ernest Rutherford is that he was the first to coin the terms "Alpha" and "Beta" when describing types of radiation. in 1899, he was studying the absorption of radioactivity by thin sheets of metal foil. 

While doing so, he noticed that two distinctly different types of particles appeared to be emitted from radioactive sources like uranium and thorium. The first (alpha) was absorbed by a few thousands of a centimeter of the foil, while the latter could pass through 100 times, or so, as much foil before also being absorbed.

He later also discovered a third kind, that he duly named "Gamma". These interesting rays could penetrate several centimeters of lead before being absorbed. Rutherford also later discovered the phenomenon of "half-life", or time it takes a radioactive material to decay by half while working at McGill University in Montreal. 

6. Rutherford, and his colleagues, first demonstrated the atomic nucleus

ernest rutherford experiment
Source: Wikipedia

Yet another fact about Rutherford you need to know is that he was part of a team that first demonstrated the existence of the atomic nucleus. While collaborating with Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, the trio worked on the now-famous Geiger-Marsden experiment (also known as the Rutherford gold foil experiment).

The experiments were conducted by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden under the direction of Ernest Rutherford at the University of Manchester in the early-1900s.

Designed to help understand the structure of the atom, the results of the experiment were quite surprising to the scientific community. Their discovery of the atomic nucleus became an integral part of Rutherford's famous model of the atom we know and love today.

7. Rutherford actually wrote the entry on radioactivity for the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica

Rutherford encyclopedia britannica
11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Source: Wikimlh/Wikimedia Commons

Just after Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, he was approached to contribute to the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Within this edition of the world-renowned reference compendium, Rutherford wrote the entry for radioactivity.

8. He helped invent the now ubiquitous Geiger counter

ernest rutherford geiger counter
An early example of a Geiger counter, circa 1932, Source: Science Museum London/Wikimedia Commons

Yet another interesting fact about Ernest Rutherford is his contribution to the invention of the Geiger counter. He worked with the German physicist Hans Geiger, who the device is named after, to develop an electrical counter for ionized particles. 

Rutherford and Geiger developed a method of detecting alpha particles through gold foil and a screen. When this happened, barely perceptible flashes of light would be emitted, which could be counted -- with enough dedication and patience. 

But the process was laborious, and Geiger managed to devise an automated method of counting each individual "flash". The Geiger counter was born, and it has since become the universal tool for measuring radioactivity. 

The first versions could only detect alpha particles, but later refinements by Geiger's student Walther Müller were sensitive to all types of ionizing radiation.

9. Rutherford was something of a petrolhead in his spare time

ernest rutherford cars
1908 Wolseley-Siddeley 14 HP Tourer, Source: Ferran/Wikimedia Commons

And finally, a lesser-known fact about Ernest Rutherford was his love for cars and golf in his spare time. He firmly believed in the old adage of "work hard, play hard", and so, in 1910 he bought his very first motor car -- a Wolseley-Siddeley.

While writing to his mother, he expressed the buzz driving cars gave a person:-

“It is very desirable to have some means of getting fresh air rapidly,” he wrote.