Ernest Rutherford

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Split Atom - Ernest Rutherford

Rutherford (b. 1871, d. 1937) was, by all accounts a very clever child. He breezed through school, where he seems to have had the quintessential Kiwi education - head boy and in the first XV. He went on to Canterbury University, completing an undergraduate degree and an honours year and publishing a couple of scientific papers, which got him noticed overseas as an outstanding innovator in the forefront of electricity research.

He won a scholarship and moved to England in 1895 and began as a research student at the distinguished Cavendish College in Cambridge - the first ever 'foreigner' to be honoured in such a way, and possibly the first example of many a Kiwi having to leave New Zealand to continue his career. The beginning of the brain drain?

Rutherford did extremely well in this role, contributing a lot to the work at the laboratory, and gaining him an invitation to work at McGill University in Canada, a role he took up eagerly. It was at McGill University that he made his first major discovery in science - that atoms can spontaneously 'transmute' into other elements through radioactivity. It was this work in explaining radioactive decay for which he won his Nobel Prize in 1908 - ironically for Rutherford, the prize was for Chemistry, not physics, yet he described himself as a physicist first and foremost.

As a by-product of this research into radioactivity, Rutherford invented radiometric dating, suggesting it could be used to finally give an accurate age for the Earth - which it eventually did. He also invented the terms 'alpha ray', 'gamma ray' and 'half-life' to help describe radioactivity.