Ernest Rutherford is considered the father of nuclear physics. Indeed, it could be said that Rutherford invented the very language to describe the theoretical concepts of the atom and the phenomenon of radioactivity. Particles named and characterized by him include the alpha particle, beta particle and proton. Rutherford overturned Thomson’s atom model in 1911 with his well-known gold foil experiment in which he demonstrated that the atom has a tiny, massive nucleus.
By the turn of the 20th century, physicists knew that certain elements emitted fast moving particles of two flavors, alpha particles and beta particles. These elements were typically very heavy (i.e. their atom nuclei were massive) such as uranium and radium. Today we know that heavy nuclei are unstable and `decay’, meaning that they spontaneously split into smaller nuclei and emit stray particles. This is called radioactivity.
The alpha particle was heavy and positively charged, we now know that it is the helium nuclei (2 protons and 2 neutrons). The beta particle was light and negatively charged, the electron. Rutherford designed an experiment to use the alpha particles emitted by a radioactive element as probes to the unseen world of atomic structure.
What was observed was the following:
- most alpha particles were observed to pass straight through the gold foil
- a few were scattered at large angles
- some even bounced back toward the source
- only a positively charged and relatively heavy target particle, such as the proposed nucleus, could account for such strong repulsion
Results can best explained by a model for the atom as a tiny, dense, positively charged core called a nucleus, in which nearly all the mass is concentrated, around which the light, negative constituents, called electrons, circulate at some distance, much like planets revolving around the Sun
The Rutherford atomic model has been alternatively called the nuclear atom, or the planetary model of the atom.