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Ernest Rutherford is often called the Father of Nuclear Physics

Ernest Rutherford was born on August 30, 1871, in Nelson, New Zealand, the fourth child and second son in a family of seven sons and five daughters. His father James Rutherford, a Scottish wheelwright, immigrated to New Zealand with Ernest's grandfather and the whole family in 1842. His mother, née Martha Thompson, was an English schoolteacher, who, with her widowed mother, also went to live there in 1855.

Ernest received his early education in Government schools and at the age of 16 entered Nelson Collegiate School. In 1889 he was awarded a University scholarship and he proceeded to the University of New Zealand, Wellington, where he entered Canterbury College. He graduated M.A. in 1893 with a double first in Mathematics and Physical Science and he continued with research work at the College for a short time, receiving the B.Sc. degree the following year. That same year, 1894, he was awarded an 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship, enabling him to go to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory under J.J. Thomson.

Rutherford published several books: Radioactivity; Radioactive Transformations,; Radiation from Radioactive Substances, with James Chadwick; The Electrical Structure of Matter; The Artificial Transmutation of the Elements; The Newer Alchemy.

On his arrival at Cambridge his talents were quickly recognized by Professor Thomson. During his first spell at the Cavendish Laboratory, he invented a detector for electromagnetic waves, an essential feature being an ingenious magnetizing coil containing tiny bundles of magnetized iron wire. He worked jointly with Thomson on the behaviour of the ions observed in gases which had been treated with X-rays, and also, in 1897, on the mobility of ions in relation to the strength of the electric field, and on related topics such as the photoelectric effect. In 1898 he reported the existence of alpha and beta rays in uranium radiation and indicated some of their properties.

At Manchester, Rutherford continued his research on the properties of the radium emanation and of the alpha rays and, in conjunction with H. Geiger, a method of detecting a single alpha particle and counting the number emitted from radium was devised. In 1910, his investigations into the scattering of alpha rays and the nature of the inner structure of the atom which caused such scattering led to the postulation of his concept of the "nucleus", his greatest contribution to physics. According to him practically the whole mass of the atom and at the same time all positive charge of the atom is concentrated in a minute space at the centre. In 1913, together with H. G. Moseley, he used cathode rays to bombard atoms of various elements and showed that the inner structures correspond with a group of lines which characterize the elements. Each element could then be assigned an atomic number and, more important, the properties of each element could be defined by this number. In 1919, during his last year at Manchester, he discovered that the nuclei of certain light elements, such as nitrogen, could be "disintegrated" by the impact of energetic alpha particles coming from some radioactive source, and that during this process fast protons were emitted.


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