This Week in History


"All Science is Either Physics or Stamp Collecting"

For the week of Monday December 8, 2008

On December 11, 1908, Ernest Rutherford gave his Nobel lecture in Stockholm, Sweden. It was on this day that the man who once said that “all science is either physics or stamp collecting,” received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances.”

Ernest Rutherford
© Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, University of Pennsylvania Library
Rutherford was born in Nelson, New Zealand, on August 30, 1871. In 1889, upon his graduation from Nelson Collegiate School, he was awarded a scholarship which allowed him to attend Canterbury College in New Zealand. Then in 1895, he received the 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship, which he used to attend Trinity College in Cambridge, England, as a research student under J.J. Thomson at the Cavendish Laboratory. From there he moved to Montréal where he became Professor of Experimental Physics at McGill University. Rutherford lived in Montréal from 1898 until he moved back to Britain in 1907, during which time he continued his research on radioactivity.

Rutherford carved out a remarkable career as a brilliant scientist who had many outstanding discoveries. He became the first successful alchemist, when he converted nitrogen into oxygen; he was the first to explain radioactivity as “the spontaneous disintegration of atoms”; and he was the one to determine both the structure of the atom and the age of the earth. Rutherford’s research also led to the Geiger Counter, which detects individual nuclear particles, and to the invention of the modern smoke detector!

$100 New Zealand Bank Note featuring Ernest Rutherford
© Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ)
In 1933 when Hitler rose to power Rutherford helped establish, and became President of, the Academic Assistance Council, which assisted displaced Jewish academics. This became one of the world’s largest mass migrations of scientists, which then caused America to replace Europe as the centre of science.

In 1914, he was knighted and became Sir Ernest Rutherford; in 1931, at the age of 61 he was raised to peerage and became Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson. Throughout his life, Lord Rutherford accumulated many awards and he held an honorary degree from more than twenty universities. When he died on October 19, 1937, his ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey in London surrounded by Sir Isaac Newton, J.J. Thomson, and other brilliant British scientists.

Although Ernest Rutherford is not Canadian, the work he performed in Montréal alongside fellow scientist Frederick Soddy earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and for this he has been designated a National Historic Person.

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