From the Physics Today Archive (Rutherford) – August 2015

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By Amanda Nelson, Associate Archivist

Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand-born physicist known as the father of nuclear physics was born 144 years ago on August 30, 1871. Rutherford won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 for “his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances,” which he worked on at McGill University in Canada. In 1907, he moved to the Victoria University of Manchester where he came up with his model of the atom through his gold foil experiment. He later, in 1919, became Director of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge where he helped lead some of the most well-known nuclear physicists of the time including James Chadwick, John Cockcroft, Ernest Walton, and many others. For more information about Rutherford and his career see the Center for History of Physics online web exhibit “Rutherford’s Nuclear World.”

Ernest Rutherford circa 1929. Courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Rutherford Collection.Physics Today has had many articles about Rutherford, his work, and the work he helped inspire over the years. Three of these articles will be available for free for the next six months. A two part article from September and October 1966 by Mark Oliphant titled “The two Ernests-I” and “The two Ernests-II” describes the differences in leadership between Ernest Rutherford and Ernest Lawrence and how they ran their laboratories. And an article in April 1967 by Lawrence Badash titled “Nagaoka to Rutherford, 22 February 1911” includes a letter from Hantaro Nagaoka to Rutherford describing his thanks and his visit to Manchester in 1910.


“The two Ernests-I”: ON 11 JANUARY 1939 after a visit to Berkeley, I wrote a letter to Ernest Lawrence that contained the following paragraph:

“I find it very difficult to thank you for the magnificent and instructive time which I had in Berkeley. It was truly fine of you to be so liberal of time and of thought on my behalf. I know of no laboratory in the world at the present time which has so fine a spirit or so grand a tradition of hard work. While there I seemed to feel again the spirit of the old Cavendish, and to find in you those qualities of a combined camaraderie and leadership which endeared Rutherford to all who worked with him. The essence of the Cavendish is now in Berkeley. I am sincere in this, and for these reasons I shall return again someday, and I hope very soon.”

Some personal recollections of Ernest Rutherford and Ernest Lawrence in the period 1927–1939. Rutherford, who dominated the Cavendish Laboratory, gave his physicists a minimum of equipment hut a maximum of personal interest in their research. Lawrence developed the Radiation Laboratory into a prototype facility for research with large, expensive equipment. Both inspired others to produce and interpret nuclear reactions. Physics Today September 1966 cover.

“The two Ernests-II”: BOTH ERNEST RUTHERFORD and Ernest Lawrence led great laboratories and inspired the physicists who worked in them. Rutherford was personally involved in almost all of the work at the Cavendish Laboratory, dominating the laboratory by his sheer greatness as a physicist and providing for his colleagues only the barest minimum of equipment. Lawrence, on the other hand, created at the Radiation Laboratory, the first of the very large laboratories in which massive and expensive equipment was designed, built and used for investigations into basic problems in physics in which he played little part, personally. After the discovery and successful development of the cyclotron at his laboratory, Lawrence enthusiastically offered his assistance in the construction of cyclotrons at laboratories elsewhere.

Sir Mark continues his personal recollections of Ernest Rutherford and Ernest Lawrence. By 1935 precise mass determinations with nuclear reactions were being made at Cavendish. In the following years Rutherford was arranging for new facilities at the laboratory. Meanwhile Lawrence began to use the cyclotron for medical research, learned to extract a beam from the accelerator and found a lot of unexpected radiation. Two years after Rutherford's death, the discovery of fission opened a new era.

 “Nagaoka to Rutherford, 22 February 1911”: WHAT WAS PHYSICS LIKE slightly more than half a century ago? One readily thinks of such famous names as J. J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, H. A. Lorentz, Albert Einstein, et al., but these are the highlights of hindsight. For the background of perhaps lesser, but nevertheless significant and interesting efforts, we usually must look to the contemporary literature, since histories of science rarely have room for elaborate descriptions of a period.

During 1910, the physicist Hantaro Nagaoka represented Japan at two international scientific congresses in Brussels and one in Vienna. This visit to Europe gave him an opportunity to observe the latest researches in the various centers of physics and to renew many acquaintances from his student days in Germany. He called at Manchester before continuing to the continent, and the letter he later wrote to Rutherford is both a description of the state of physics through the eyes of an acute observer and a “thank you” to Rutherford.