Understanding the atom

In 1898, when Ernest Rutherford was hired to work in McGill’s newly-built Macdonald Physics Building, he set his sights on understanding the recently-discovered phenomenon of radioactivity. Rutherford soon came to believe that the strange force was the result of the disintegration of the atom – a revolutionary concept that Frederick Soddy, a demonstrator in McGill’s Chemistry Department, described as akin to “a new world.”

Soddy was ready to explore that new world with him, and together, he and Rutherford collaborated on a series of experiments that started to reveal the structure of the atom. Rutherford’s work was so cutting-edge that he had to construct the devices he used to measure atomic activity himself. By 1903, he published “Radioactive Change” in a London journal, a paper that kick-started the field of atomic physics. Rutherford’s conclusion that atoms could be transformed, and that each atom potentially carried a tremendous amount of energy, earned him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908. Soddy also went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1921.

After leaving McGill, Rutherford went on to make other major breakthroughs including splitting the atom in 1913, which he described as having “broken the machine and touched the ghost of matter.” In the wake of Rutherford’s death, the New York Times noted that he was “universally acknowledged as the leading explorer of the vast infinitely complex universe within the atom, a universe that he was first to penetrate.”