Built on Facts

#6 – Ernest Rutherford


The New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford was an incubator of genius, and a genius himself. His position on this list is probably a little unorthodox as he wasn’t a very flashy scientist and he wasn’t a theoretical wizard. He just happened to be a surpassingly great physicist anyway.

When Rutherford started his work in the late 1800s, modern physics was still quite new. Classical mechanics had been fleshed out reasonably well, but relativity and quantum mechanics didn’t exist, and the world of the microscopic was very poorly understood. The very concept that there were such a thing as atoms wasn’t entirely without controversy. The structure of atoms was something not far removed from blind conjecture.

The first steps toward understanding came from the discovery and subsequent study of radioactivity. These little bits of atoms provided the clues which helped to push back the darkness of the interior of the atom. Rutherford was at the forefront of this effort, describing and naming alpha and beta radiation, and making the discovery of radioactive half-life.

Rutherford is best known for his direction and supervision of the Geiger-Marsden experiment, which is certainly one of the most beautiful experiments in physics. He fired alpha particles at gold atoms and by their scattering was able to determine that the mass of the atom was overwhelmingly concentrated in a tiny central nucleus. It’s both amazing for its elegance and the fact that it presaged quantum mechanics in an unexpected way. Classically, the behavior of particles scattering off of other particles is governed by a wholly different set of rules than it is in quantum mechanics. The classical rules for scattering are totally wrong at the subatomic level. But in an amazing coincidence, the quantum rules and classical rules happen to give the same answer for coulomb scattering off a nucleus. If it hadn’t, Rutherford’s experiment might well have been misinterpreted and subatomic physics would have probably been set back by years.

He hypothesized the existence of the neutron, and ran the institute where the neutron was discovered and the atom was first split. He was the first man in history to successfully perform alchemy. Well, nuclear transmutation of one element to another anyway.

So many things we take for granted as common and easy knowledge were first brought to light by Rutherford and his group. It’s hard to contribute more to physics than that.

Honorable Mention: Niels Bohr, for similar reasons.

The list so far (click the category name for links):
6. Rutherford
7. Schrodinger
8. Dirac
9. Thomson
10. Pauli


  1. #1 Ubiquitous Che
    October 9, 2008

    Yay Rutherford!

    I was hoping Rutherford would get a mention. We Kiwi’s are kinda predatory when one of our number does anything of international significance. But Rutherford is a special case. A Kiwi founded the science for the splitting of the atom, and yet New Zealand is one of the few developed countries in the world to shun the nuclear arms race.

    I think I can be excused for taking a tiny bit of national pride in that. :P

  2. #2 CCPhysicist
    October 9, 2008

    A good choice, because experimental physics usually gets short shrift in such lists and Rutherford contributed as much by the way he ran his lab (and who he trained and hosted as visitors) as he did by his own work as both an experimentalist and theorist.

    One thing you didn’t point out, however, was that Rutherford’s explanation of the Geiger and Marsden experiment in terms of “Rutherford scattering” was published 2 years after the experiment itself was published.

    I tend to be a bit stronger on the controversial standing of the atom as a real object circa 1900. After all, Boltzman’s suicide is attributed both to his manic depression and to the lack of acceptance of his vision of matter as atoms in motion. Einstein’s 1905 paper about Brownian motion is counted as part of the “miracle year” because it connected atoms to the observable world. Transmutation also played a big role in making atoms real.

  3. #3 Alex Besogonov
    October 11, 2008

    There’s an interesting anecdote about Rutherford’s lab.

    A young Pyotr Kapitsa (a Nobel Prize winner) wanted to work in Rutherford’s lab, but at first Rutherford refused to admit him. Then Kapitsa asked what was a usual error margin in Rutherford’s lab. Bewildered Rutherford answerd “About 3%”.

    Kapitsa answered: “There’s 30 scientists employed in your lab. So with your precision you won’t even notice me!”.

    And Kapitsa was admitted.

  4. #4 B McManus
    October 29, 2008

    Not to quibble about what is clearly a matter of opinion, but I’d think that Bohr would easily make top 10.

  5. #5 Anonymous
    April 17, 2012

    my lol poo