Life and Work of Rolf Wideröe by © Pedro Waloschek,     => Contents

Box 1:  Sir Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson

There has hardly been another scientist this century who has had as much influence on the study of the structure of matter as Lord Ernest Rutherford. As far back as 1908 he received the Nobel Prize for chemistry because he had recognized that radioactive alpha rays were in fact helium particles which were emitted by particular atoms.

In 1911, Rutherford proposed a strange experiment to his then assistant, Hans Geiger (who later developed the Geiger-Müller counter) and to his student Ernest Marsden. He got them to shoot alpha rays at gold atoms. Most of them passed through the gold atoms with practically no hindrance, but a few bounced off, some even backwards.

From this experiment Rutherford deduced that atoms are practically empty, except for a small nucleus in which almost their entire mass is concentrated. This was the discovery of atomic nuclei.

However, of particular interest to Wideröe was the discovery of the nuclear disintegration, which Rutherford had published in the `Philosophical Magazine' in 1919 after verifying his experimental results for about three years. This found an appropriate echo in the media of the time.

The most important aspect of Rutherford's experiments however, was the method. When nuclear particles collide, it becomes possible to investigate their properties. The main interest in those days lay in researching the composition of atomic nuclei by this method. Nowadays we call this `scattering experiments'. The higher the energy employed, the smaller are the details of the structures which can be investigated. Moreover, new particles can be generated in this way. This is the method used today to investigate the smallest constituents of matter.

Rutherford's intentions were to find better conditions for his experiments and he encouraged his colleagues to produce particles of higher energy in the laboratory. However, knowledge of this did not reach Wideröe, who was working in Karlsruhe and Aachen, as he had no links with this particular research centre.

Ernest Rutherford, born 1871 in New Zealand, was made a Peer of the Realm in 1931. He died in 1937.