Ernest Rutherford was a New Zealand chemist and physicist. He is known as the father of nuclear physics because of his discovery of the nuclear structure of an atom. This is the discovery that will be explained in this report. This wasn’t his only discovery. He also discovered the concept of radioactive decay (half-lives), the proton, and alpha and beta particles.

Who is Ernest Rutherford?

Ernest Rutherford was born on August 30, 1871, in Nelson, New Zealand. He grew up on a small farm in Foxhill, where he attended school. He then went to universities in New Zealand, England, and Canada where he got a Bachelor of Science and started educating and supervising students such as Niels Bohr and James Chadwick.

He then became the director of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge where he was able to do all of his experiments. In 1899 he discovered the Alpha particle and in 1908, he won the Nobel prize for chemistry “for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances.” After this, he worked in his laboratory and taught students for many years until he died on the 19 of October 1937. He was buried in Cambridge, just west of Sir Isaac Newton.

The Discovery of The Nucleus of The Atom

In Montreal, Ernest Rutherford continued his work on Alpha rays. He was studying emanations of Thorium with R.D Owens when he came across Thoron, an isotope of Radon. He then published his findings and moved to Manchester as a result. This is where he then studied emanations of Radium which produced a constant stream of alpha particles. In 1910, he handed his findings to his apprentices, Ernest Marsden and Hans Geiger. They then created the Geiger-Marsden experiment, also known as the gold foil experiment, to study the scattering of Alpha particles.

The experiment creates a stream of alpha particles from a sample of radium in a lead cube, directed at a thin Gold or Platinum sheet 70-100 atoms in thickness. The alpha particles go straight through the empty space but when they come into contact with the nucleus of one of these atoms, the alpha particles bounce in a weird direction. The experiment detects this scattering of alpha particles by having a fluorescent screen surrounding the setup that fluoresces when an alpha particle hits it.

The reason why the alpha particles bounce off the nucleus is that both the nucleus of an atom and an alpha particle is positively charged. When two positively charged fields interact, they repel each other. Most of the particles went straight through the gold during the experiment but a few bounced in different directions. Ernest Rutherford saw the results and theorized that an atom is mostly empty space but there is an area in the center where nearly all the mass of an atom is held. This disproved J.J. Thompson’s early plum pudding model where Thompson stated that all mass was spread uniformly throughout the atom. The only thing that Rutherford got wrong in his theory was the placement of electrons. He thought that the electrons floated around instead of them having an orbit and existing in shells.

How Did the Discovery of The Nucleus Affect Chemistry?

The discovery of the nucleus has changed physics and chemistry forever. It has allowed us to discover the proton and neutron and it also meant that we could organize the periodic table better. By organizing it by the number of protons in the nucleus, not the atomic weight. The discovery also disproved J.J. Thompson’s plum pudding model. This led Niels Bohr, one of his proteges, to create the first theoretical model of an atom. Another reason why the discovery was so important was that it allowed other scientists to build on what Ernest Rutherford had discovered. Niels Bohr made his model in 1913 but in 1926, Erwin Schrödinger created the atomic model we still use today. He stated that electrons exist in a cloud. It is impossible to know where an electron is at any time, but we can predict where it is going to be.

How Has It Impacted the World?

Text Box: Nuclear Bomb TestThe Real Nuclear Threat | The New YorkerThe discovery of the nucleus has helped the world in good ways and in bad ways. For good because it has given us a deeper understanding of an atom and bad because it has started a time of nuclear warfare.  

Rutherford’s work laid the foundations of modern chemistry today. His discoveries of the nucleus which led to the discovery of the structure of the atom underpin the entire foundation of modern chemistry today. This has allowed us to classify and gain a deeper understanding of all the elements of the periodic table and we can understand the ways atoms and molecules react with each other in equations. His work was fundamental to quantum mechanics which explains how atoms can exist in multiple states at once.

The types of technological and other advancements that have occurred and impacted our lives both positively and negatively since Rutherford’s discoveries are seemingly endless however none may be more significant than the development of the most destructive weapon known to mankind, the nuclear bomb. The nuclear bomb relies on a small particle (neutron) splitting the nucleus of an atom and releasing neutrons. These released neutrons then split more atoms. This chain reaction goes on and on, killing thousands of living organisms. Rutherford is considered one of the greatest scientists in history because of his work with the structure of the atom.


This discovery has laid the foundations for the modern subjects of chemistry and physics. It has allowed us to gather a deeper understanding of the shape and structure of an atom. We can also create theories off this discovery and build on its concepts. The nucleus has changed for the world, for good, and for bad. In his honor, the element Rutherfordium (number 104) was named after him.


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Cite this article as: William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team), "Ernest Rutherford: Biography & Discovery of Atomic Structure," in SchoolWorkHelper, 2022,

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