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ARCHIVED - Ernest Rutherford: the Canadian connection

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Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), born one of 12 children in rural New Zealand, went on to lay the foundations of nuclear physics and win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His contemporary, Albert Einstein, called Rutherford “the second Newton.”

Rutherford in his laboratory at McGill, 1907. Courtesy of the Rutherford Museum, McGill University

Rutherford in his laboratory at McGill, 1907. Courtesy of the Rutherford Museum, McGill University

In 1904, Ernest Rutherford published his first book, “Radioactivity,” in which he presciently stated, “There is reason to believe that an enormous store of latent energy is resident in the atoms of radioactive elements… If it were ever possible to control at will the rate of disintegration of the radioelements, an enormous amount of energy could be obtained from a small amount of matter.” 

Rutherford, who had solved the mystery of radioactivity, personally felt this was impossible, dismissing the very idea as “moonshine.” To cover his bets, however, he expressed the hope that the human race would not discover how to extract atomic energy until every country was living at peace with its neighbours. 

Rutherford was wrong in both respects, and the threat of atomic weapons has shaped our world since the Second World War. On the flip side of the coin, our standard of living has improved greatly from nuclear power and from treatments made possible by nuclear medicine. All these technological advancements were made possible by Rutherford’s groundbreaking exploration into the mysteries of the atom and the cause of radioactivity.

Travel back in time to read Rutherford’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, December 11, 1908.

Solving the puzzle of radioactivity

Rutherford received the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his “investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances.” The phenomenon of radioactivity had just been discovered in 1896, and scientists had been working hard to figure out what it was. 

It was Rutherford who cracked the puzzle in 1902, showing radioactivity to be the spontaneous disintegration and transformation of atoms into new matter. And he carried out the research supporting this monumental discovery while working at McGill University in Montréal.

Rutherford Museum

The Rutherford Museum at McGill University houses the world’s best collection of Rutherford’s laboratory equipment thanks to the farsightedness of his colleague Howard Barnes who, after Rutherford’s departure from McGill, stored it safely away in a cupboard. There the equipment stayed until Rutherford’s death in 1937, when it was rediscovered.

Rutherford and his colleague Frederick Soddy of McGill’s Chemistry Department published a series of papers that explained radioactivity.  The discovery was as momentous to nuclear science as the first lunar landing would be to space exploration.  Their work, in effect, established a base camp from which future scientific expeditions into the mysteries of the atom were staged.  Soddy himself went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1921 for his research on radioactive substances and isotopes.

Honours were many during Rutherford’s lifetime, including a knighthood in 1914 and his subsequent elevation in 1931 to the peerage as Ernest, First Baron Rutherford of Nelson. He died in 1937 at the early age of 66, two years before scientists proved that uranium fission releases an immense amount of energy. Rutherford was buried in Westminster Abbey, alongside other scientific greats, including Isaac Newton.

In its eulogy, the New York Times described Rutherford “as the leading explorer of the vast, infinitely complex universe within the atom, a universe he was first to penetrate.” End

Rutherford in Canada

Ernest Rutherford moved to McGill University in Montréal in 1898, much to the chagrin of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University where he was considered their rising star. Unfortunately, Cambridge’s rules did not allow Rutherford to advance because of his youth.

McGill, on the other hand, offered him a full professorship with an excellent salary, access to one of the world’s best-equipped laboratories, and the expectation that he would spend more time conducting research than teaching. It was an offer not to be refused by an ambitious young scientist in need of a solid income to support himself and his soon-to-be wife Mary Georgina Newton (no relation to the illustrious Isaac Newton).

Rutherford’s mentor at Cambridge, Professor J.J. Thomson, who discovered the electron, had steered him away from studying electromagnetism into the brand-new field of radioactivity. At McGill, Rutherford forged ahead with a brilliant program of experimentation. By 1902, he had observed and named spontaneous radioactive disintegration, assisted by Frederick Soddy of McGill’s Chemistry Department.

Throughout his tenure at McGill, Rutherford was constantly courted by American institutions, and McGill countered by raising his salary at each attempt. But in 1907, Rutherford received another offer he could not refuse, and so he left McGill to take the Chair in Physics at Manchester University. In 1919, he returned full circle to Cambridge University as the director of its Cavendish Laboratory.