Ernest Rutherford

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Rutherford, Ernest


Born Aug. 30, 1871, in Bright-water, New Zealand; died Oct. 19, 1937, in Cambridge. British physicist who laid the foundations for the study of radioactivity and the structure of the atom; the first to carry out artificial transmutation of elements. Fellow of the London Royal Society (1903). For his scientific achievements elevated to the peerage with the title of Baron Rutherford of Nelson in 1931.

The son of a small farmer, Rutherford enrolled in the University of New Zealand at Christchurch in 1890. While still a student, he became interested in the use of electromagnetic waves for a wireless telegraph and constructed a magnetic detector of electromagnetic oscillations. For this work, Rutherford, upon graduation from the university in 1894, received a scholarship to continue his scientific work in the Cavendish Laboratory in England. There, under the supervision of J. J. Thomson, he studied the processes of ionization in gases and became interested in the phenomenon of radioactivity, which was discovered in 1896 by A. Becquerel. Beginning in 1897 he held a chair of physics in Montreal, Canada, and beginning in 1907, at Manchester. From 1919 to the end of his life, Rutherford was a professor at Cambridge University and director of the Cavendish Laboratory.

All of Rutherford’s major works were devoted to the atomic nucleus. In his early works Rutherford showed that radiation from a radioactive substance is a complex process, in which most of the energy is carried by particles. He established that such corpuscular radiation consists of two parts, which he called alpha and beta rays. He also showed that beta rays are a flux of electrons, and alpha rays are helium atoms. In 1900, Rutherford discovered the disintegration product of radium, which was given the name “emanation.” In 1903, together with F. Soddy, he advanced a theory that explained radioactivity as the spontaneous decay of an atom of a substance during which the atom changes place in the periodic table of the elements; that is, the atoms of certain elements are transmuted into atoms of different elements. For this work Rutherford received a Nobel Prize in 1908.

Studying the scattering of alpha particles on passage through matter, Rutherford concluded that a massive positively charged nucleus exists at the center of atoms. In 1911 he proposed the planetary model of the atom, which is analogous to the solar system: at the center is a positively charged nucleus, and negatively charged electrons revolve about the nucleus in orbits. On the basis of this model, N. Bohr developed the first theory of the atom and spectra in 1913.

In 1919, Rutherford was the first to show that artificial disintegration of the elements could be produced. He bombarded nitrogen atoms with fast alpha particles. As a result, the nitrogen atoms were converted into oxygen atoms, and fast hydrogen nuclei, called protons at Rutherford’s suggestion, were emitted. In 1921, Rutherford advanced the hypothesis that a neutral particle—neutron—might exist. His subsequent work was devoted to the study of the artificial radioactivity of various elements.

Rutherford, a talented organizer, trained a large school of physicists, including H. Moseley, J. Chadwick, J. Cockcroft, M. Oliphant, N. Bohr, W. Heitler, and O. Hahn. The Soviet physicists P. L. Kapitsa and Iu. B. Khariton also worked under him. Rutherford’s works gained universal recognition, and Rutherford was elected a member of most of the academies of the world, among them the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (honorary member).


The Collected Papers of Lord Rutherford of Nelson, vols. 1–3. London, 1962–65.
Izbr. nauchnye trudy: Radioaktivnost’. Moscow, 1971.
Izbr. nauchnye trudy: Stroenie atoma i iskusstvennoe prevrashchenie elementov. Moscow, 1972.


Eve, A. S. Rutherford: Being the Life and Letters of the Rt. Hon. Lord Rutherford. Cambridge, 1939.
Danin, D. Rezerford. Moscow [1967].
Starosel’skaia-Nikitina, O. A. Ernest Rezerford. Moscow, 1967.
Rezerford—uchenyi i uchitel’: K 100-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia. Edited by P. L. Kapitsa. Moscow, 1973.


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