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Rutherford: splitting the atom

Ernest Rutherford (right) and Hans Geiger (c) Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand
Ernest Rutherford (right) and Hans Geiger, physics laboratory, Manchester University c.1913

There are few discoveries in science that can be said to have changed the world but one must surely be the 'splitting of the atom' by Ernest Rutherford in Manchester.

Rutherford was a New Zealander, who came to Manchester in 1907 to take up the the position of Chair of Physics at the University.

Ernest Rutherford (c) Alexander Turnbull Library, NZ
Rutherford performed hundreds of radioactivity experiments

He was already a notable scientist, winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on the disintegration of elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances in Canada.

But in Manchester, he was quickly on his way towards greater discoveries, aided by one of the finest teams of scientists ever assembled.

Included in his 'nuclear family' were Hans Geiger, who would go on to invent the radiation counter; Lawrence Bragg, who won the 1915 Nobel Prize for his work on X-ray crystallography; Ludwig Wittgenstein, the analytic philosopher; and the great Niels Bohr, seen by many as the most gifted scientist of the 20th Century.

Little wonder then that the city became a global centre for scientific research focussed on Rutherford, a man of such brilliance and repute that Albert Einstein would later call him "a second Newton".

Discovering the nucleus

It was one particular line of investigation though that would eventually put Rutherford alongside Darwin and Einstein in the great pantheon of science - his studies of the atom.

The Rutherford building
A 2009 inquiry found no evidence that six cancer deaths at the Rutherford Building were the result of radioactive contamination

Shortly after arrival, along with Hans Geiger, he invented the Rutherford-Geiger detector which allowed him to detect individual nuclear particles by electrical means.

This in turn set Rutherford on a path to discover what lay within a single atom.

Through a series of experiments conducted at his laboratory just off Oxford Road, he determined that the the mass of an atom was concentrated in its nucleus - a particle 1,000 times smaller than the atom itself - with the rest being made of a cloud of orbiting electrons.

It was a discovery that changed the face of science.

Prior to that, the atom had been presumed to be the smallest particle in the universe. Now, Rutherford was on the verge of 'splitting the atom'.

In 1911, he presented his new model of atomic structure and then set about planning the experiments that would prove the idea that, just like the atom, the nucleus itself had smaller components.


The outbreak of war in 1914 interrupted Rutherford's research and saw his talents re-directed towards submarine technology and underwater acoustics, rather than physics.

Blue plaque
Rutherford is remembered as the father of nuclear physics

But in 1916, he was allowed to resume his atomic work at his laboratory on Bridgeford Street where he carried out hundreds of experiments using radioactive material.

A year later, he discovered that he could disintegrate the nuclei of nitrogen atoms by firing particles from a radioactive source which, in turn, resulted in the release of fast protons.

This was the first ever artificially-induced nuclear reaction, a breakthrough that would lead ultimately to nuclear power and the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

In essence, Rutherford had not only created a new scientific discipline, that of nuclear physics, but also changed the world forever.

All images reproduced with kind permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Permission must be obtained before any re-use of these images.

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