Ernest Rutherford’s Nobel Prize

The founding father of nuclear physics was awarded the highest honour on December 10th, 1908.

Ernest Rutherford
Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford was born on a farm in New Zealand in 1871, the fourth of twelve children. He made a brilliant impression at school and university and in 1895 went on a scholarship to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1898, at the age of twenty-six, he moved to Canada as Professor of Physics at McGill University in Montreal. From 1907 he held the chair of physics at Manchester University and was there when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry the following year. In 1919 he returned to the Cavendish Laboratory as its director. Four of those who worked under him at the Cavendish became Nobel laureates in their turn.

It has been said that the most important thing about Rutherford was his talent for conceiving simple ideas that were right. He was also a huge influence on co-workers who at different times included Hans Geiger and Niels Bohr. Rutherford revolutionized scientists’ understanding of atomic structure and relativity. He showed that radioactivity was emitted by the disintegration of atoms and foresaw radiocarbon dating. In 1919 he was the first person to succeed in transforming one element into another – nitrogen into oxygen – and experiments he supervised at the Cavendish led to the first splitting of the uranium atom in 1932.

Rutherford dismissed any idea of putting nuclear energy to practical use as ‘moonshine’ and he did not live to see the developments that led to nuclear weapons. A big, heavily built man with a loud voice, a loud laugh and a personality described as ‘overwhelming’, he did not suffer fools gladly and his occasional rages were terrifying. He was also an inspiring leader who drove teams of enthusiastic workers almost to exhaustion.

Knighted in 1914, he was given the Order of Merit in 1925 and a peerage in 1931. He was sixty-six when he died in a Cambridge hospital in 1937 after an operation for a strangulated hernia. His ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.

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