Physics Question #1752

joe, a 12 year old male from Barrie asks on December 15, 2003,

Who was the first to split the atom and what year?

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The answer

Addy Somerset answered on December 16, 2003

The atom was split by Ernest Rutherford in 1917 but the results were not published until 1919. You can learn more about this famous New Zealander who spent nine years in Canada at the Science Museum in London, England.

[Editor: In fact Rutherford was first to observe an atom splitting, or to put it another way, radioactive decay. In fact Sir John Douglas Cockcroft and Ernest Walton transmuted lithium into helium by splitting the lithium nucleus using a particle accelerator in 1932. This was the first time an atom had been split by artificial means. Cockcroft and Walton worked in Rutherford's lab at Manchester University and they also won a Nobel prize in 1951 for their efforts. Cockcroft spent two years in Canada heading up the Canadian Atomic Energy project from 1944 -46.

Quoting from the Canadian Encyclopedia, Rutherford "went to McGill University in Montreal in 1898 as a young professor of physics. He was attracted by the chance of doing research in a new building, a gift to the university from millionaire William Macdonald. During his nine years in Canada, working with chemist Frederick Soddy, Rutherford developed the theory of radioactivity." Ultimately, Rutherford was awarded the 1908 Nobel prize in chemistry for his discovery in Canada of the radioactive decay of elements and the transmutation of uranium into lead. Rutherford is not profiled as a Canadian scientist at because he does not satisfy our simple rule: he never held Canadian citizenship while he did his most significant research.]

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