Ernest Rutherford

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Ernest Rutherford

We all know that an atom looks like a tiny solar system. It has a dense mass in the middle, with smaller objects orbiting around it. That picture was first drawn by Ernest Rutherford, who was born 150 years ago today.

Rutherford studied math and science in his native country, New Zealand. He did graduate work in England, then began his professional career in Canada. He moved back to England a few years later, and stayed there the rest of his life.

Rutherford spent much of his career studying radioactivity and the structure of the atom. He discovered several radioactive elements. And he realized that the contemporary idea of the atom was wrong. Instead of a solid mass, it was mostly empty space. It consisted of a small, heavy nucleus with smaller particles orbiting around it. The nucleus contained all of the atom’s positive electric charge, while the orbiting particles contained the negative charge.

Rutherford also discovered a way to characterize individual atoms — a finding that allowed scientists to study matter at the smallest scales for the first time.

Rutherford won many accolades for his work. He was knighted in 1914, and made a baron in 1931. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908. And in 1997, a newly discovered element — number 104 — was named rutherfordium in his honor.

Rutherford died in 1937. Today, he’s considered one of the fathers of nuclear physics — the scientist who gave us the atom.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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