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A Century of Revolution

by Greg Topasna, SPS Zone 4 Councilor, with the 2011 SPS Theme Committee of the National Council
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A Century of RevolutionThis year marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the atomic nucleus by Ernest Rutherford. In a groundbreaking 1911 paper*, Rutherford interpreted the results of the now-famous gold foil experiment carried out by Hans Geiger and undergraduate Ernest Marsden under Rutherford’s direction in 1909. Rutherford expected only slight deflection of alpha particles fired at a thin gold foil; but what they discovered shocked and amazed him. Remarking on the alpha particles that bounced back, Rutherford said, “… it was like firing a 15 inch shell at a sheet of tissue paper and having it bounce back.” He interpreted these experimental results as showing that the nucleus of the atom is concentrated in the center with the electrons “orbiting” about it.

While Rutherford may have been shocked and amazed, what is truly more amazing is the revolution in innovation and discovery that nuclear science has provided since then. Through our knowledge of the nucleus and nuclear processes we have been able to understand the inner workings of stars, harness the energy of the atom to provide nuclear power, and enjoy the improvement in our lives that nuclear medicine makes possible. We are truly the beneficiaries of the work from countless numbers of men and women these past 100 years.

In recognition of this remarkable event and the discoveries that have followed, The Society of Physics Students has selected as its 2011 theme, “A Century of Revolution” to honor the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the atomic nucleus. Throughout the coming year, let us each explore the many remarkable and varied ways nuclear science has benefitted humankind and the possibilities the future may hold.


*"The scattering of alpha and beta particles by matter and the structure of the atom," Philosophical Magazine, volume 21 (1911), pages 669-688.

Lord Rutherford on a New Zealand banknote
Lord Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford, who became Lord Rutherford of Nelson, was born in 1871 in Nelson, New Zealand.  In 1894 he went to England, to do research at Trinity College, Cambridge, after finishing university in New Zealand.  At Cambridge he did work with Prof. J. J. Thomson on radioactivity, which led to Rutherford’s famous gold foil alpha scattering experiments and the discovery of the nucleus of the atom. These experiments were done at Manchester University. Eventually, he succeeded J. J. Thomson as director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge in 1919. Besides Lord Rutherford, the face of the $100 note pictured above from the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has a vignette of his Nobel Prize and what appears to be a plot of his data.

—Excerpted from 20th Century Physicists on Banknotes, by Steve Feller (Fall 2010 issue of Radiations magazine)


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