Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ernest Rutherford, New Zealand's First Winner of the Nobel Prize, 1908 - 2008

Ernest Rutherford (1871 - 1937)

10 December marks the centennial of Ernest Rutherford's receipt of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his investigations into the disintegration of elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances. A biography of Rutherford can be found here.

In 1898 at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, he discovered that two quite separate types of emissions come from radioactive atoms, naming them alpha and beta rays. Beta rays were soon shown to be high-speed electrons. His research later moved to a study of the disintegration of radioactive substances which he discovered resulted from the transformation of the atom itself and thus the creation of new elements.

In 1919, Rutherford accepted the position of Director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in the UK. In that role he supported a flurry of new scientific work by others at the Cavendish that included discovery of the neutron by Chadwick, the splitting of the atom by a particle accelerator, and discovery of the ionosphere.

Ernest Rutherford come from a family of modest means and was reliant on scholarships to continue his high school and university studies at Canterbury College then in the centre of Christchurch, New Zealand where the Rutherford Den, a rather make-shift lab, is re-created in what is now the Arts Centre.

Rutherford failed three times to obtain a permanent school teaching position in New Zealand upon graduation at a time when opportunities for physics research were virtually non-existent in the country.

Thus, Rutherford became one of the early examples of the New Zealand brain drain.

Nonetheless, he never forgot his Kiwi roots, returning to give public lectures, to encourage the government to preserve more native forests and expand scientific research as well as creating opportunities for younger New Zealanders to study and work at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Three New Zealanders have won the Nobel Prize. In addition to Rutherford, Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for his contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA and in 2000 Alan MacDiarmid won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his contribution to the discovery and development of electronically conductive polymers.

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