School of Physical and Chemical Sciences Te Kura Matū Seminar Series

The Centennial of Ernest Rutherford Splitting the Atom


Dr John Campbell


University of Canterbury

Time & Place

Fri, 09 Mar 2018 11:00:00 NZDT in Room 531, Level 5, West Building (formerly called Rutherford)

All are welcome


Ernest Rutherford is most well known internationally for his nuclear model of the atom.

Just afterwards, by 1918 whilst playing marbles with nuclei, he split the atom using particles from natural radioactivity. In doing so he became the world’s first successful alchemist, he had changed oxygen into nitrogen. The announcement of his event was delayed until World War 1 ceased. It was some years before it became well known in the general press, with fanciful headlines such as “Making Gold from Feathers”.

And, curiously, before he left Canada in 1907, he had the experimental proof that proved alpha emission was a quantum tunnelling event as was proposed by Gamow in 1928.

This led Rutherford to realising he could split the atom with particles of much lower energy than were put out during naturally occurring radioactivity. Hence his team built a linear accelerator using the highest voltages obtainable in his day and, in 1932, his group became the first to split the atom by entirely artificial means. The age of the enormous atom smashers had begun.


John Campbell, a retired physicist from the University of Canterbury, is the author of “Rutherford’s Ancestors”, “Rutherford Scientist Supreme”, and, and is the co-producer of the three-part documentary “Rutherford.”

Dr Campbell taught physics at the University of Canterbury from 1968 until retiring in 2004. He now concentrates on Rutherford and his Ask-A-Scientist programme which has seen some 100,000 column centimetres of science in New Zealand newspapers since he initiated it 1993.