Who Discovered the Radioactive Elements

Ernest Rutherford British Physicist, Father of Nuclear Physics, Nobel Laureate. Brief biography of scientist Baron Ernest Rutherford whose work formed the basis of nuclear physics, best known for atom planetary model and atomic nucleus discovery. The most important work of Baron Ernest Rutherford, New Zealand-born British physicist, was on the nature of radioactivity and the structure of the atomic model.

Early Years of Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford was born on August 30, 1871, in Brightwater, New Zealand. His family emigrated from England before he was born and operated a successful farm on the South Island near Nelson. He had 11 other siblings. The son of a farmer, he left New Zealand for Britain in 1895. Being a bright child, he won a scholarship to New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, then won another scholarship to study at Cambridge University, England, where he made the first successful wireless transmission over two miles – a feat in and of itself.

He was professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal (1898-1907) and then at Manchester in 1907. In 1919, he was elected Cavendish professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge, he was also director of the Cavendish Laboratory and it was there he met J.J. Thompson, the man who discovered the electron.

Beginnings of Rutherford’s Discovery

In the early years of his work, Rutherford found that all radioactive elements emitted two kinds of radiation: one carried a positive charge and the other a negative charge. He called them alpha and beta particles, respectively.

While working with Frederick Soddy in 1901, he found that when the radioactive element emitted an alpha or beta particle, it spontaneously turned into a different element. His evidence was too strong for critics to refute him.

Rutherford’s Most Important Work

In 1906, when he moved to the University of Manchester, Rutherford teamed up with Hans Geiger, famous for the invention known as the Geiger counter. Together, they set up a centre to study radiation, which was about to change physics forever. Rutherford’s test consisted of bombarding gold foil with alpha particles; he then monitored the paths of the particles. An amazing thing happened: Rutherford and his students saw that some alpha particles were deflected, that is, bounced back straight toward the source.

From the experiment, he was able to deduce that atoms have a central core, which he called the nucleus (plural, nuclei) and the particles that bounced back directly hit on the nucleus. This discovery was of fundamental importance in understanding the atomic structure, basis of all subsequent nuclear physics.

Rutherford concluded that an atom must consist of a minute but dense nucleus, surrounded by space in which electrons orbit. His atomic model’s structure, likened into a planet, became known as Rutherford Planetary Model. The orbital model of Niels Bohr (Bohr Model), later evolved.

Contribution and Awards of Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford is best known for his discovery that radioactive elements transform into other elements. He also discovered the atomic nucleus, the dense area in the center of the atom. While other chemists and physicists were unsure that atoms existed, Rutherford provided the ultimate proof. He also showed that atoms were not individual objects, as ancient philosopher Democritus thought.

Among his awards were the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908, the Order of Merit (OM) in 1925, and a peerage in 1931. He died on October 19, 1937, aged 66.

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