Einstein, Darwin, Newton and…Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford on New Zealand's $100 banknote

100 years ago — on 10 Dec 1908 — New Zealand’s most preeminent scientist, Ernest Rutherford, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

According to the official wording, the prize was awarded, “for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances”. But the legacy of Rutherford’s groundbreaking work is much more far-reaching.

The Science Media Centre has asked a cross-section of scientists to reflect on how Rutherford’s work has influenced contemporary science and technology. Here’s what they have to say:

Dr John Campbell, Physics Dept., University of Canterbury:

“New Zealanders don’t fully appreciate the high regard with which Ernest Rutherford is held internationally. He is to the atom what Darwin is to evolution, Newton to mechanics, Faraday to electricity and Einstein to relativity.”

Dr David Krofcheck, Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics, University of Auckland:

“Professor Rutherford is rightly lauded for his studies of the natural radioactive decay of atomic nuclei, but most people are not aware that he also discovered the proton, which really deserved a second Nobel Prize. His work is relevant today because Rutherford’s protons are the ‘workhorses’ of nuclear and particle physics today.  We will use the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN will smash protons together seek new components of matter.

In 1919 Rutherford published a paper that described his experiments on bombarding nitrogen gas atoms with helium nuclei. He found a new electrically charged particle that acted like the hydrogen nucleus.  Since there was no hydrogen gas present before the helium nuclei hit the nitrogen atoms, then the resulting hydrogen nuclei must have come from inside the nitrogen.  Rutherford renamed those hydrogen nuclei that came from artificially ‘spitting the nitrogen atoms’ as protons.”

Dr Gavin Wallace, Scientist, National Isotope Centre, GNS Science:

“A number of people in the science community regard Rutherford and Einstein as equals in terms of genius. Both were at the forefront of modern physics at the start of the 20th century, and both were rewarded with Nobel Prizes for their achievements. However, a significant distinction is that through his leadership and mentoring, Rutherford’s students and collaborators went on to win another 11 Nobel Prizes. No other physicist has had such direct influence on the cutting edge of science.”

Dr Andreas Markwitz, Ion Beam Scientist, National Isotope Centre, GNS Science:

“We use Rutherford’s invention – Rutherford Backscattering Spectrometry – as our main analysis method to probe the atomic makeup of materials. Rutherford’s work also led to his postulation of the concept of the nucleus, one of his greatest contributions to science. Rutherford’s work opened the way for the development of important techniques such as ion implantation and ion beam analysis (IBA).  At GNS Science, we are proud to be the sole provider of quantitative ion beam analysis of all elements in the periodic table.

“We have recently made major improvements to our Ion Beam Analysis Laboratory in Lower Hutt that enable us to be at the forefront of the quickly evolving field of nanotechnology. Using techniques that Rutherford pioneered, we have made major discoveries in the field of nanotechnology.  We also use our ion beam facility to analyse about 4000 air filters a year from New Zealand cities and from overseas. This enables territorial authorities to identify sources of air pollution and take steps to improve air quality.”

Dr Shaun Hendy, Theoretical Physisist, Industrial Research Limited:

“Lord Rutherford pioneered the concept of the modern scientific group working collaboratively to solve difficult problems. Team work in science is something we take for granted today but in his time it was revolutionary. One of his students, Ernest Marsden, came to New Zealand from England and founded the DSIR. Industrial Research Limited was formed when the DSIR was split up into Crown Research Institutes in the 90s, so at IRL we owe much to his legacy.”

Dr Alan Hogg, Director of the Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory:

“Lord Rutherford was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century and his humble background, hard work and passion for scientific inquiry gives New Zealand scientists confidence to achieve on the international stage. His discovery that the process of radioactivity was subatomic, producing a- and b- particles and his recognition that radioactive isotopes decay logarithmically, resulted in formulation of the radioactive decay equation, which is the basis of all dating techniques including radiocarbon dating. His experiments often required ingenuity that is typically Kiwi (the No. 8 wire mentality) and I personally have found great inspiration in his example.”

Dr Phillip Yock, Physics Dept., Auckland University:

“I have long been inspired by Rutherford, not because he was born in New Zealand, rather, through his science, as follows:-

“It is also well-known that Rutherford’s atomic model replaced Thomson’s ‘plumb pudding’ model which envisaged an atom as numerous light electrons swarming inside a cloud of massless positive charge (Phil Mag 7, 237, 1904). What is not so well-known is that Thomson’s model of the atom is remarkably similar to today’s model of the proton. The latter envisages the proton as numerous light quarks swarming inside a cloud of massless colour charge (Nature 436, 186, 2005). As a longtime skeptic of today’s Standard Model
of particles, I find Rutherford’s work inspiring”…..Philip Yock.

Further Information
For more information on Rutherford, his centenary, or talk to these or other relevant New Zealand scientists on this topic, please contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email:

Notes to Editors
The Science Media Centre (SMC) is an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand. Our aim is to promote accurate, bias-free reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community. The SMC is an independent centre established by the Royal Society of New Zealand with funding from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. The views expressed in this Science Alert are those of the individuals and organisations indicated and do not reflect the views of the SMC or its employees. For further information about the centre, or to offer feedback, please email us at