National Geographic : 1949 Apr
Lord Rutherford (1871-1937); Sir J. J. Thomson (1856-1940) RNEST RUTHERFORD was born near the little town of Nelson, in the north of the South Island of New Zealand. His grand father had sailed from Dundee, Scotland, in 1842 with his family, among whom was James, a boy of three, Rutherford's father. Rutherford's parents belonged to the best type of emigrant pioneer. His mother was a schoolteacher, and there was always a special link between her and her son. Rutherford once said to a school friend that, had he not won from the country hamlet a scholarship which took him to Nelson College, he would have been a farmer and never real ized his special gifts. From Nelson a second scholarship took him to Canterbury College at Christchurch, New Zealand. He was digging one day when his mother came out to impart the joyous news that he had won a third scholarship which would take him to Cambridge. Flinging away his spade, he said, "That is the last potato I'll dig." When he arrived at Cambridge, fortune smiled on him. He was welcomed to the Cavendish Laboratory by its distinguished director, Sir Joseph J. Thomson, who dis covered the electron in 1897 and whose work on the structure of the atom paved the way for Rutherford's later great contributions. Rutherford was only 24 years old, but he soon began to make a name for himself. Dr. Andrew Balfour wrote of him, "We've got a rabbit here from the Antipodes, and he is burrowing mighty deep." Within four or five months Rutherford was dining at the Fellows' table at King's among the elect. His fame had spread rapidly on account of his experiments on the detection of electric waves for long distances. Ruther ford succeeded in transmitting electric waves for half a mile. These experiments were made before Marconi began his investigations on signaling by electric waves. After lecturing at Columbia University, in 1902, he wrote: "I am the only worker in the field of excited radioactivity in the English speaking world." Rutherford's professorships in Montreal, Manchester, and Cambridge may be said to "correspond roughly with the three major phases of the development of atomic theory which will always be associated with his name," as Prof. R. H. Fowler points out. For his work at McGill University in un raveling the intricate phenomena of radio active change and the chemistry of the natural radioactive elements, he received the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1908. His 12 years at Manchester University are associated mainly with the discovery of the nucleus and the de velopment of the nuclear model of the atom. He passed the last 18 years of his life at Cambridge as Cavendish Professor. This third period culminated in 1932, the year which saw the discovery of artificial disintegration by protons, of the positron and of the neutron. the first and third Cavendish contributions. These fundamental contributions of Ruther ford and his associates helped to lay the foundations of nuclear physics, a new branch of physics, out of which grew the release of atomic energy and the atomic bomb. As the representative of Britain beyond the seas, no more distinguished figure could have been chosen than Rutherford. His lack of for mality assured him friends wherever he went. Within a few years the subject of radium had captured men's minds, and Rutherford's services were in great demand. He received offers of professorships from Yale, Columbia. and Leland Stanford. He was awarded the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society, the Barnard Medal, the Franklin Medal, and many honorary degrees. The career of Rutherford was launched under happy auspices through the friendship of Sir Joseph J. Thomson, who developed the Cavendish Laboratory which later was headed by Rutherford. Thomson won the Nobel prize in physics in 1906. Today's electronic age, with its "electric eyes," radio, radar, television, and countless other devices controlled by electronic tubes. is founded on Thomson's discovery that the electron is a negatively charged particle, a "corpuscle of electricity" as he called it. Thomson was the first to show that the atom is made up of particles of positive and negative electricity, the nucleus having a positive charge while electrons with negative charges rotate around it. His work revolu tionized the sciences of chemistry and physics. One of Thomson's great contributions was his tremendous influence in the training of young physicists at the Cavendish Laboratory. During his tenure it was a mecca to which young men flocked from all over the world to sit at the feet of this great teacher. When only 27, he was elected to the Royal Society. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. The portrait of Sir Humphry D)avy (page 510), by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and Oswald Birley's painting of Lord Rutherford are used by permission of the Royal Society; that of Sir William Ramsay (page 525), by Mark Milbanke, is from the University College. London, and Arthur Hacker's Sir Joseph J. Thomson is in the Cavendish Laboratory.