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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 3 (June 1, 1937)

The Rutherford Chain of Discoveries

The Rutherford Chain of Discoveries.

To a non-scientific writer like myself, marvelling at the mental capacity which can unlock such magical secrets of the physical world, a technical review of the great New Zealander's work is not possible. I must turn therefore to the narratives and explanations of others, and especially to the writings of Dr. Marsden, who has been Secretary of our Department of Scientific and Industrial Research since its foundation some fifteen years ago; before that he was Professor of Physics at Victoria University College and Assistant Director of Education.

We have all read of Rutherford's amazing discoveries in the study of atoms, and of how he succeeded in splitting the atom, but how he accomplished that wizardly feat is a recondite mystery to most of us. Dr. Mardsen has, therefore, most kindly come to my help, and has given this lucid exposition of the Rutherford discoveries, amplifying articles and a radio talk he delivered several years ago.

From X-rays, Dr. Marsden explains, Rutherford turned his attentions to the radiations from radium and so-called radio-active bodies which had certain similar properties and on which pioneering work had been done in France by Becquerel, and by Curie and Madame Curie. He soon made interesting and far-reaching discoveries, including the radio-active emanations, such as are used in treatment in our hospitals; and he worked out the nature and properties of the radiations emitted. He found these to be of three kinds—the alpha rays, or atoms of helium, the beta rays which are electrons emitted with speeds almost up to that of light, and the gamma rays which, like X-rays, were similar to light waves, but because of their small wave-lengths were able to pierce the relatively coarse open structure of ordinary matter. Since that time he has devoted himself to the use of these radiations, in unravelling the secrets of atoms and the way in which these atoms are constructed. He was able to count atoms one by one, although they are so small that in air, for example, in a space occupied by a pin head, the number of atoms is about 25,000,000 times the total population of the earth.