Biography -The Greatest Experimentalist

Martha Rutherford with Eva and (left to right) Charles, Ernest, Jim, and Herbert, 1885. 
Ernest was 14. Credit: Tyree, Rutherford family.

Imagine a village boy who shaped the science of our century. Not only with his own work also with his generations of incredible students. You guessed it right that boy is the most famous New Zealander in the history: Ernest Rutherford.

Ernest Rutherford was born on August 30, 1871, in a house that his father had built in a small settlement on the New Zealand frontier. He was simply a genius boy who seem to be curious about everything he saw around himself. Rutherford excelled in science, literature and sports. His childhood favorite was Charles Dickens, he even read him to his little sisters. When he graduated from college, he effected by the works of Heinrich Hertz. Rutherford managed to reproduce Hertz’s results and become obsessed by radio waves. In that field he won a scholarship in order to continue his work at Cambridge. After a little de tour from our story in history sources we find out an interesting fact that Rutherford actually would not have won the scholarship if an older chemist didn’t marry, sometimes love could change the course of history(!).

Over Easter holiday in 1896, Rutherford took a cycling holiday to Lowestoft, Sussex, with classmates.  Credit: Rutherford Family, in Campbell, Rutherford, Scientist Supreme, plate B17.

After his studies in Cambridge, he went to McGill University by the strong reference provided by J.J. Thompson. There he made an enormous work on transmutation of element which gave him  the Nobel Prize on Chemistry in 1908.  Some people enjoy the mention that work as modern alchemy. When Ernest become so famous, he returned to England, Manchester. There he accomplished the work that made him an immortal legend: Discovery of Proton. With that we can safely say that Sir Rutherford created the field of Nuclear Physics.

When we look at the life of Rutherford, we can see that he was a pure genius there is no question about it. He was such a unique scientist actually non-stereotypical we can say. He was a loud speaking village man. He spoke so loudly that his student had to make a sign: “Please talk softly”.

 John Ratcliffe and Ernest Rutherford (smoking) at the Cavendish Laboratory, 1911.

When we try to understand the impact of scientist, we see there is 3 category which scientist can their mark: 1) Their work on the technical filed. 2) Students that they mentored. 3) Public opinion, familiarity. There are only a few scientists in the entire history who can excelled at all of the 3 categories and Rutherford certainly one of them. His own work made him one of the greatest experimental physicists, he is a mentor of 12 Nobel Laurates and in public, every high school student on Earth learns about his work, he is on the money of New Zealand and he is on the countless stamps.  

Rutherford on the 100 dollars of New Zealand.

Rutherford accomplished so much with his unstoppable search for simplicity. He always wanted to make everything as simple and controllable as possible, He did not like theoretical games, he listened what his devices said. His pursuit of finding the secrets of the atom getting stronger every day at places like CERN. After his sudden death in 1937 New York Times wrote about him the best way possible:” It is given to but few men to achieve immortality, still less to achieve Olympian rank, during their own lifetime. Lord Rutherford achieved both. In a generation that witnessed one of the greatest revolutions in the entire history of science he was universally acknowledged as the leading explorer of the vast infinitely complex universe within the atom, a universe that he was first to penetrate.”

E. Rutherford with H. Geiger

Resources: Reeves, R. (2008). A force of nature: the frontier genius of Ernest Rutherford. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. — https://www.rutherford.org.nz/https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/ernest-rutherford-master-of-simplicity/

I strongly recommend our readers to check the resources in order to get to know this great man in more detail!

U. Karadeniz

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