The Independent - The man who went nuclear: How Ernest Rutherford ushered in the atomic age


It was during a meeting of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society that the nuclear age was announced, on Tuesday, 7 March 1911, by Professor Ernest Rutherford, the 39-year-old head of physics at Manchester University.

Rutherford was born in 1871, in Spring Grove, New Zealand. Descended from Scottish emigrants, it was from this scattered rural community on the north coast of the South Island that Rutherford's aptitude for science and maths led in 1895 to a coveted place at Cambridge. There, under the direction of JJ Thomson, Rutherford established a reputation as a fine experimentalist with a study of X-rays.

Though surrounded at Cambridge by all the excitement generated by Thomson's discovery of the electron in 1897, Rutherford opted to investigate radioactivity and soon found that there were two distinct types of radiation emitted from uranium, which he called alpha and beta, before a third was discovered, called gamma rays.

Aged just 27, in 1898, he was appointed professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal. Among his successes over the next nine years the most important was the discovery, with his collaborator Frederick Soddy, that radioactivity was the transformation of one element into another due to the emission of an alpha or beta particle…

Rutherford never cared for the honours and was indifferent to academic or social standing. What mattered most to him were the results of experiments. "I was brought up to look at the atom as a nice hard fellow, red or grey in colour, according to taste," he once said. It was a model he replaced with an atom that began the nuclear age.