NZ's greatest scientist remembered
12 Dec 2008
It's exactly 100 years since New Zealand's greatest scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Lord Ernest Rutherford, whose face adorns the NZ$100 bill, was recognised in 1908 for discoveries that ultimately changed history.
The official citation for his prize reads "for investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances."
Ernest Rutherford grew up in rural Nelson at the top of the South Island, but his academic career began at Canterbury College in Christchurch, and took him on to Cambridge (England) and Montreal (Canada).
Lord Rutherford biographer John Campbell, a physicist at Canterbury University, says New Zealanders don't appreciate "the international importance of, and immortality of Rutherford".
"He is to the atom what Darwin is to evolution, Newton to mechanics, Faraday to electricity and Einstein to relativity," said Campbell.
Rutherford's three major discoveries helped shape modern science and saw Albert Einstein call him the man who "tunnelled into the very material of God".
Lord Rutherford's first major discovery, which earned him the Nobel Prize, was of radioactive decay and showed atoms could naturally change their structure. The discovery had huge implications, revealing atoms were not stable as was previously believed, and lead to the development of carbon dating.
Carbon dating helped solve a debate which had been raging between physicists - who thought the earth was relatively young - and earth scientists, who hoped it was much older. The technique is still used today to date anything from fossils to artefacts.
Born in 1871, the fourth of 12 children, Rutherford studied in Christchurch before heading to Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England in 1895. He attended McGill University in Montreal, Canada from 1898 - 1907, which is where he made his Nobel Prize winning discovery.
In 1907, the year before he received his prize, Rutherford returned to England to Manchester University where he made his second major discovery when he identified the structure of the atom.
Rutherford's new experiments, deflecting particles off gold leaf, showed the atom was as we know it today - a nuclear structure of mostly empty space, with electrons orbiting an incredibly dense nucleus at the centre.
His third major finding in 1917 built on the discovery of the nuclear model of the atom. Rutherford converted nitrogen atoms into oxygen, artificially forcing the transformation and thus 'splitting the atom' - the feat for which he is probably best known in New Zealand.
Outside the lab
Rutherford also excelled outside the lab though his achievements are less known.
He founded the Academic Assistance Council, which helped more then 1000 German-Jewish academics find work after they were displaced by the Nazis.
He campaigned for equality for women at Cambridge University, and promoted scientific research for industrial development in areas such as rail and paint production.
Rutherford also led Allied war research during WWI into the development of sonar technology to track submarines under water.
Described as a humble and extremely likeable man who shared credit for his work, Rutherford helped with many other prize-winning experiments and tutored nine future Nobel Prize winners early in their careers.
Rutherford was knighted in 1914, made a member of the Order of Merit in 1925 and a Baron in 1931.
He included a kiwi and a Māori warrior on his coat of arms as well as Hermes Trismegistus, the patron saint of knowledge and alchemists.
Lord Rutherford died in 1937, aged 66.
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