Ernest Rutherford , the Father of Atomic Physics

Unofficially, nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford is the father of atomic physics as he was the first to explain radioactivity and correctly describe the structure of the atom. In this article, you will also learn why his work would go on to make it easier to study the past.


Ernest Rutherford attended Nelson College and followed up his studies at Canterbury College in Christchurch, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree. He also received a Master’s degree in math and physics , all of which would help him in his future achievements. Rutherford decided to stay on for another year at Canterbury so that he could continue researching the detection of electromagnetic waves. At this time, he was noted as having a knack for carrying out successful experiments.

Rutherford was 24 years old in 1895 when he traveled to England. It was here that he became the first research student of the distinguished physicist J.J. Thomson.  He conducted particle research at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University under the physicist’s wing. At the same time, he worked on his own endeavors and finally succeeded in sending and receiving electromagnetic signals (or radio waves) that traveled across a distance of 2 miles.

This feat impressed Thomson and because of this, he asked Rutherford for his assistance in the investigation of conduction of electricity through a gas associated with X-rays. This research would lead to the discovery of the electron on Thomson’s part.

Enter Radioactivity

The beginnings of radioactivity studies had come to light , thanks to Henri Becquerel and Rutherford wished to conduct research on the topic. He chose to take a look at the radiation associated with uranium and found that it would ionize a gas, but also learned that radiation was emitted , two kinds in fact that offered varying powers of penetration and ionization. He named these findings alpha and beta radiation.

Significant Findings

Rutherford earned the professorship of physics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada in 1898. Here, he made an impressive find as he worked on thorium oxide. He learned that the compound gave off a radioactive gas whose radioactivity halved every minute. When the gas came in contact with a metal plate, Rutherford noted that it would generate a deposit that possessed a “half-life” in a matter of 11 hours that were not influenced by outside factors.

Joining forces with chemist Frederick Soddy, Rutherford was able to demonstrate that during the process of emitting an alpha or beta particle, atoms of one element were transforming into atoms of another. This finding was introduced to others in 1904 when Rutherford gave a lecture to the Royal Society of London. His theory of radioactive decay was seen as a major accomplishment. His work earned him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908.

Connection to the Past

The half-lives of elements plays an instrumental role in dating rock by measuring the relative amounts of an element and its decay products. This method was used to produce an estimation for the age of the Earth.