Rutherford, Christchurch, alpha particles, Marsden and the like

On our drive up the east coast of the South Island last week, we had a short amount of time in Christchurch. Despite living in NZ for six years now, this was the first time that I’d been (changing planes at the airport doesn’t count).  I can see why the guide-books suggest it is quite English.

In the city centre, in the old buildings of the former Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury), there is a well-presented little exhibition on Ernest Rutherford. Visitors get to see the cellar-area where he did his project work as an undergraduate, and one of the old lecture theatres where he sat. If you are at all interested in physics (and I guess if you weren’t you wouldn’t be reading this blog) it’s well worth a look.

Anyway, one thing that was obvious to me going through the exhibition is how big a thing that Christchurch, and New Zealand, likes to make of Rutherford. And you can’t blame them – Rutherford was born near Nelson, went to school in Havelock and went to university in Christchurch. And as every New Zealand physics student knows, Rutherford is famous for discovering the nucleus of an atom.

Except that, as every British physics student knows, the nucleus of an atom was discovered by Geiger and Marsden.   It was those two students, working in Rutherford’s lab in Manchester, who did the experiments. Rutherford’s part was to interpret the results. (As any successful PhD student knows, if you do good work, your supervisor gets the credit, if you do lousy work, you get the blame.) I’m not trying to suggest Rutherford’s role is overstated, not at all, the point I’m making is that things are often presented in a very parochial manner. Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any mention of Geiger and Marsden in Christchurch.

In fact, Rutherford, who did far more than just discover the nucleus of the atom, is claimed by many places as their own.  In the UK, where he did most of his research, he is held in honour in both Manchester and Cambridge, and presumeably Montreal in Canada does the same.  And of course Christchurch, Nelson and Havelock in NZ all do so as well, with good reason.

Ernest Marsden is worth a mention here too.  He was born and studied in Britain (as any British physics student knows) but later moved to New Zealand (the reverse of Rutherford), where his name I think is not so well known.   Why is that I wonder?  His name lives on in ‘The Marsden Fund" – a fund to support basic research in New Zealand.



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