The huge amount of energy carried by alpha particles should have allowed them to travel through a small amount of air undisturbed, with no deflection.

He gave Geiger and Marsden the task of investigating to what extent alpha particles would be deflected from their usual straight-line path by passing through a very thin sheet of gold foil.

His father, James Rutherford, was a farmer from Scotland and his mother, Martha Thompson, was a schoolteacher from England.

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And so in 1898 Rutherford sailed to Canada, taking up a professorship, aged just 27.

At Mc Gill he carried out the work which led to his 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Thomson’s retirement as the Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge.

The results of the gold foil experiment allowed Rutherford to build a more accurate model of the atom, in which nearly all of the mass was concentrated in a tiny, dense nucleus. The nucleus was like a fly floating in a football stadium – remembering of course that the fly was much heavier than the stadium! Although Rutherford had received a Nobel Prize for his earlier work, his discovery of the atomic nucleus was probably his greatest achievement.

Electrons orbited at some distance from the nucleus. A 26-year-old Niels Bohr, who was spending time as a research student in Rutherford’s laboratory in 1912, was intrigued by Rutherford’s model of the atom.

He discovered the concept of nuclear half-lives and achieved the first deliberate transformation of one element into another, fulfilling one of the ancient passions of the alchemists.

Ernest Rutherford was born on August 30, 1871, in the village of Brightwater on New Zealand’s South Island.

“I have to keep going, as there are always people on my track.

I have to publish my present work as rapidly as possible in order to keep in the race.

He read his first science book at the age of 10, and was enthralled by what he learned, carefully performing the experiments the book suggested.