Rutherford’s Nuclear World

By Dr. Gregory A. Good, Director, Center for History of Physics


“In 1911, 40-year-old Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom. That is the usual, simple, factual statement most science students know quite well. The story of this discovery, however, involves more than one person, research over several decades, and a very human story.”

So begins the new web exhibit, Rutherford’s Nuclear World, on the website of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. Since the 1990s, AIP’s History Programs have been path breakers in the use of the internet to “preserve and make known” the history of physics. The new Rutherford exhibit joins a dozen others, on topics ranging from Albert Einstein and Marie Curie to the transistor and the laser.

The original goal of the new exhibit was to get beneath the surface of the 1911 discovery of the nucleus. I started out to tell how the discovery occurred, to challenge both newcomers to the history of physics and old hands to reevaluate simple discovery. I was surprised to find one of Rutherford’s students from that time, Edward Andrade, say that there was no excitement about the discovery of the nucleus in 1911. Andrade wrote “...the nuclear theory of the atom attracted hardly any attention. Its immense significance was not realized.” Even Rutherford reflected back in 1932, in a letter to his old colleague Hans Geiger of Manchester days, “Those were happy times in Manchester, and we wrought better than we knew.”

As often happens in historical research, I too discovered that the story of 1911 could not be told in isolation from the rest of Rutherford’s career. Ernest Rutherford was one of those historical figures, large and powerful and dominating, whose whole life infused his work. From his early days exploring radioactivity in Montreal, through the work with scattering alpha particles in Manchester and the disruption of the nucleus at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, Rutherford explored the atomic world with an unparalleled experimental passion. To tell the story of 1911, I felt compelled to tell the broader story of Rutherford’s nuclear world.

The production of Rutherford’s Nuclear World rested on the historical research of three undergraduate interns of the summer intern program of the Society of Physics Students: Mary Mills, Fidele Bingwa, and Ryan M. Barley. The interns read Rutherford’s original publications, his letters, and the oral history interviews that AIP conducted with Rutherford’s students in the 1960s and 1970s. They had to learn the physics, but they also learned how to evaluate and use historical evidence. Their joy of discovery helped take the web exhibit in directions I had not anticipated. The other essential person in producing the exhibit was Ada Uzoma, our web designer. Her crisp, simple design pulls the reader deeper into the story.

This exhibit is built firmly on resources in AIP’s Niels Bohr Library and Archives. The exceptional book collection includes every edition of Rutherford’s marvelous Radio-activity, which he updated as phenomena became known. It also includes important and now neglected works by historians such as Thaddeus Trenn on Rutherford and Soddy, or John Heilbron on H.G.J. Moseley. The most important resources, however, are the archival ones, such as the oral history interviews and photographs. AIP now has over 850 oral history transcripts on our website, where they are available to the world. Among Rutherford’s students and colleagues represented in this collection are Edward Andrade, James Chadwick, John Cockcroft, and Niels Bohr. AIP’s Emilio Segrè Visual Archives provided most of the photographs. All the staff of AIP’s History Programs contributed to this exhibit.

In one way, AIP’s newest web exhibit differs from earlier ones. Rutherford’s Nuclear World will continue to grow, as I and future SPS interns explore new parts of the story. We will explore, for example, “radiations” from Rutherford’s achievements, such as the development of particle accelerators and the use of radiation in medicine. We will also add animations as they are developed. We will explore historical themes, such as the participation of women in nuclear physics. We will explore ways to interact with our readers, who come from every corner of the globe. Rutherford’s Nuclear World provides us the opportunity to share the wealth of AIP’s History Programs with students and “the curious” everywhere

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