Nobel prize-winning scientist Ernest, Lord Rutherford completed his undergraduate degree at Canterbury College between 1890 and 1895 while it was based at the Arts Centre site.
While a student, he carried out much of his own research into the high frequency magnetisation of iron in a basement den in the Clock Tower Building. This building now houses an interactive science museum that showcases the research of Rutherford and his contemporaries.
In 1895, Rutherford was accepted to Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory in England where he studied radioactivity and named the two distinct rays emitted from radioactive materials – alpha and beta particles.
In 1900, he returned to Christchurch to marry his fiancé Mary Newton and together they travelled to Canada where Rutherford worked at McGill University in Montreal. It was here that he undertook the research that would win him the Nobel Prize in 1908.
In 1911, while at Manchester University, Rutherford produced the nuclear model of the atom and, with Niels Bohr, the static orbit model recognised worldwide today.
In 1932, under Rutherford’s guidance, James Chadwick would discover the neutron, and John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton would finally ‘split the atom’. The following year, Rutherford helped found the Academic Assistance Council, which aided academics displaced by Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.
Rutherford maintained two typically New Zealand qualities that served him well throughout his life – pragmatism and modesty.
During his lifetime, and posthumously, Rutherford was recognised with numerous prizes, honorary degrees and fellowships. His drive for scientific discovery was unbounded, as was his strong belief in the support of education, research and innovation.
His successes laid the foundation for future scientific progress, including many of today’s technologies we take for granted such as radios, TVs, sonar, the Geiger counter, mobile radios and telephones and smoke alarms.
Visit the Rutherford’s Den interactive science museum at The Arts Centre to learn more about the discoveries of Rutherford and his contemporaries.