Friday 05 Oct 2012Colloquium: Rutherford in Manchester: Historical and Radio-archaeological Perspectives

Dr. Neil Todd - University of Manchester

Newman F 12:00-13:00

In this era of the large hadron collider it is easy to forget, or rather to be simply unaware, that for the first three decades of the twentieth century, before the invention of the modern accelerators, it was necessary for any cutting edge physical science department, in which the fundamentals of matters were being investigated, to possess a supply of natural radioactive matter for the preparation of sources of energetic particles. Radium (Ra226) was the element of choice because of its particular properties - only tiny amounts in terms of weight were required to produce strong sources. It was using a supply of radium that Ernest Rutherford and his school at Manchester were able to make many of the discoveries a century ago which laid the foundations of modern physics. These included, the atomic nucleus, the quantum atom, the concept of atomic number and the modern periodic table, the concept of isotopes and nuclear transmutation - all within a few short years between 1908 and 1919. Radium, though, because of its properties, and those of its decay products, required special handling to avoid contamination. Inevitably accidents did happen and contamination became an occupational hazard for Rutherford and his contemporaries. The recent discovery of radium contamination at the old Physical Laboratories at Manchester left over from Rutherford's time has been a source of some concern and media coverage because of the possibility that it might represent a health hazard. The contamination does, however, also represent a unique form of archaeological information which can give us an insight into how Rutherford's laboratory was organised 100 years ago.

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