Ernest Rutherford's gold foil experiment

By Grant Jacobs 22/04/2011 5


Ernst Lord Rutherford is perhaps New Zealand’s best-known scientist and features on our $100 note.

(Source: WikiMedia Commons.)
(Source: WikiMedia Commons.)

His story is outlined at many sites, including a biography at the Nobel Prize website and the Rutherford.org website, which also includes pages about the myths about Rutherford (the most widely held, in NZ at least, would be that he got his Nobel Prize for ‘splitting the atom’), his birthplace and other information.

Among Rutherford’s achievements were simple particle bombardment experiments to reveal aspects of the inner structure of atoms. The video below, taken from Backstage Science’s growing collection, which features a present-day replication of Rutherford’s famous gold foil experiment, in which in a beam of alpha particles shot at a gold foil sheet, most would pass through but a few would be deflected or bounce back:

The Nobel Prize website has a video of Rutherford talking about his work.

If you’d like like a ‘lite’ explanation of the science, this video is part of a larger documentary and features Dr. Cox explaining this experiment:


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5 Responses to “Ernest Rutherford's gold foil experiment”

  • Proper understanding of Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of atomic nucleus, on the basis of his famous alpha scatttering experiment, is very important and hence it is included in the introductoy courses of science. But at this level, performing experiment is not possible. Therefore I am using an analogy of shadows of spheres of various diameters – since September 1977. It seems to work really properly. Feel free to write me on dvsathe[at]gmail.com Dileep V. Sathe Former Member of the A.A.P.T.

  • I have conducted that proton scattering experiment (but with more electronic instrumentation and computer equipments in the lab than Rutherford had) at the former AURA-2 Linear Accelerator at University of Auckland, Physics Department. Had Rutherford got accessed to today’s technology, no doubt he would have discovered more.

    The target was a thin gold-foil and we used proton beams (produced from Hydrogen gas being pumped into a highly charged vacuum chamber so the electrons are stripped off thus leaving bare protons to be guided via magnetic lens into the accelerator). We had to measure the back-scattered protons at certain angles, then we had to work out all the properties of the gold nucleus. The experiment was fun and was very long too , an 8 hour day for 4 consecutive days. It wasn’t too bad since a team of 3 students were assigned to do it. We took turn everyday in turning up to AURA-2 to taking/recording of measurements.

    AURA-2 has been demolished to make way for the enlarged Computer Science building and I’ve heard that nuclear physics Masters & Doctorate students do their experiments in Australia or at CRI.

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