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Physicist Ernest Rutherford was the central figure in the study of radioactivity who led the exploration of nuclear physics.
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Chemist and physicist Ernest Rutherford was born August 30, 1871, in Spring Grove, New Zealand. A pioneer of nuclear physics and the first to split the atom, Rutherford was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his theory of atomic structure. Dubbed the “Father of the Nuclear Age,” Rutherford died in Cambridge, England, on October 19, 1937 of a strangulated hernia.
Ernest Rutherford was born in rural Spring Grove, on the South Island of New Zealand on August 30, 1871. He was the fourth of 12 children, and the second son. His father, James, had little education and struggled to support the large family on a flax-miller’s income. Ernest’s mother, Martha, worked as a schoolteacher. She believed that knowledge was power, and placed a strong emphasis on her children’s education.
As a child, Ernest, whose family called him “Ern,” spent most of his time after school milking cows and helping with other chores on the family farm. Weekends were spent swimming in the creek with his brothers. Since money was tight, Rutherford found inventive ways of overcoming his family’s financial challenges, including birds-nesting to earn funds for his kite-flying supplies. “We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think,” was Rutherford’s motto at the time.
At the age of 10, Rutherford was handed his first science book, at Foxhill School. It was a pivotal moment for Rutherford, given that the book inspired his very first scientific experiment. The young Rutherford constructed a miniature cannon, which, to his family’s surprise, promptly and unexpectedly exploded. Despite the outcome, Rutherford’s interest in academics remained unfaltering. In 1887 he was awarded a scholarship to attend Nelson Collegiate School, a private secondary school where he would board and play rugby until 1889.
In 1890 Rutherford landed another scholarship—this time to Canterbury College in Christchurch, New Zealand. At Canterbury College, Rutherford’s professors fueled his enthusiasm for seeking concrete proof through scientific experimentation. Rutherford obtained both his Bachelor of Arts and his Master of Arts degrees there, and managed to achieve first-class honors in math and science. In 1894, still at Canterbury, Rutherford conducted independent research on the ability of high-frequency electrical discharge to magnetize iron. His research earned him a Bachelor of Science degree in just one year’s time. During that same year, Rutherford met and fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, Mary Newton. The couple married in 1900 and later welcomed a daughter, whom they named Eileen.
In 1895, as the first research student at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in London, Rutherford identified a simpler and more commercially viable means of detecting radio waves than had been previously established by German physicist Heinrich Hertz.
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