LEO BAEKELAND (1863-1944)

1909 – USA

Photograph of LEO BAEKELAND ©


‘Synthetic bakelite, the first plastic’

Bringing formaldehyde and phenol together under high temperature and pressure produced the world’s first thermosetting plastic.





1911 – Holland

‘At very low temperatures, some materials conduct electricity without any resistance: that is, virtually without any loss of energy’

Photograph of KAMERLINGH ONNES with his apparatus in 1926


These materials are called superconductors. In 1908 Kamerlingh-Onnes found that metals such as mercury, lead and tin become superconductors at very low temperatures.

It is now known that about 24 elements and hundreds of compounds become superconductors near absolute zero.

Superconducting technology advanced little until 1986, when scientists developed a metallic ceramic compound that becomes superconductive at around the temperature of liquid nitrogen – minus 196 degrees Celsius.

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1911 Manchester, England

‘The atom contains a core or nucleus of very high density and very concentrated positive charge. Most of the atom is empty space, with the electrons moving about the tiny central nucleus’

Early photograph of ERNEST RUTHERFORD


Working under JJ THOMSON (1856-1940) at the Cambridge Cavendish Laboratory and later at the McGill University in Montreal, in 1898 Rutherford put forward his observation that radioactive elements give off at least two types of ray with distinct properties, ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’ rays.

In 1900 he confirmed the existence of ‘gamma’ rays, which remained unaffected by a magnetic force, whilst alpha and beta rays were both deflected in different directions by such an influence. Although both displayed the ability to stab through solid matter, alpha rays were far less penetrating than beta rays.
He proved through experimental results that they were helium atoms missing two electrons.

Alpha Beta Particles, Gamma Rays in a Magnetic Field

Alpha Beta Particles, Gamma Rays in a Magnetic Field

Alpha rays are in fact positively charged helium atoms that become true helium when they slow down and their charge is neutralised by picking up electrons.
Beta rays were later shown to be made up of electrons, and gamma rays to have a shorter wavelength than X-rays.

diagram showing comparative penetrations of Alpha Beta Gamma radiation

Alpha Beta Gamma radiation

In Montreal, Rutherford worked with Frederick Soddy and showed that over a period of time, half of the atoms of a radioactive substance could disintegrate. During the process the substance spontaneously transmuted to other elements. During radioactive decay, one kind of atom (radium) was ejecting another kind of atom (helium).

Working with other elements, Rutherford and Soddy found that each radioactive element had its own characteristic ‘half-life’. After one half-life, a sample retained only half its original radioactivity, after two half-lives a quarter, after three half-lives an eighth. The half-life of thorium emanation, now known as radon, was close to a minute. The half-lives of other radioactive elements ranged from a split-second to many billions of years. That of radium was 1620 years, while uranium had a half-life of 4.5 billion years.

The concept of half-life provides a way of measuring the age of rocks. As radioactive atoms decay they emit alpha particles. As these are essentially helium atoms, the amount of helium gas accumulates within the pores and fissures of a sample of a uranium mineral as a measure of how many atoms have decayed. Heating samples to drive off their helium and measuring the amount gives an indication of their age.
In order to provide more reliable dates, measuring the amount of lead, the ultimate decay product, compared with the amount of uranium, eliminates the errors introduced by the escape of some of the helium decay product to the air.

Dating rocks in this way gives an estimate of the age of the Earth, and by implication also the Sun, of around 4.5 billion years.

A radioactive atom is simply a heavy atom, which happens to be unstable. Eventually it disintegrates by expelling an alpha, beta or gamma ray. What remains is an atom of a slightly lighter element. A radioactive atom may decay more than once. Uranium, for instance, transforms itself into a succession of lighter and lighter atoms, one of which is radium, until it achieves stability as a non-radioactive atom of lead.

English: Radioactive decay modes


Working with HANS GEIGER (1882-1945), Rutherford developed the Geiger counter at Manchester University in 1908. This device measured radiation and was used in Rutherford’s work on identifying the make-up of alpha rays.

While he was at McGill, Rutherford had experimented firing alpha particles at a photographic plate. He had noticed that, while the image produced was sharp; if he passed the alpha particles through thin plates of mica, the resulting image on the photographic plate was diffuse. The particles were clearly being deflected through small angles as they passed close to the atoms of mica.
In 1910 his team undertook work to examine the results of directing a stream of alpha particles at a piece of platinum foil. While most passed through, about one in eight thousand bounced back – that is, deflected through an angle of more than 90 degrees.

Deflection of alpha Particles by Thin Metal Foil

Deflection of alpha Particles by Thin Metal Foil

In 1911 he put forward the theory that the reason for the rate of deflection was because atoms contained a minute nucleus that bore most of the weight, while the rest of the atom was largely ’empty space’ in which electrons orbited the nucleus much as planets orbit the Sun. The reason that one in eight thousand alpha particles bounced back was because they were striking the positively charged nucleus of an atom, whereas the rest simply passed through the spacious part.

But what was an atomic nucleus made of?
At 100,000th the size of the atom, it would take decades of painstaking experiments to discover.

In 1919, working in collaboration with other scientists, Rutherford artificially induced the disintegration of atoms by collision with alpha particles. In the process the atomic make-up of the element changed as protons were forced out of the nucleus. He transmuted nitrogen into oxygen (and hydrogen) and went on to repeat the process with other elements.

(image source)

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1912 – England

X-rays scattered from a crystal will show constructive interference provided their wavelength ( λ ) fits the equation

2d sin θ = n λ 

where d is the spacing between atoms of the crystal, θ the angle through which the rays have scattered and n is any whole number

This is the cornerstone of the science of X-ray crystallography.



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Symmetrically spaced atoms cause re-radiated X...

Symmetrically spaced atoms cause re-radiated X-rays to reinforce each other in the specific directions where their path-length difference, 2d sin θ, equals an integer multiple of the wavelength λ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NIELS BOHR (1885-1962)

1913 – Denmark

‘Electrons in atoms are restricted to certain orbits but they can move from one orbit to another’

Bohr’s was the first quantum model for the internal structure of the atom.

Bohr worked with RUTHERFORD in Manchester and improved upon Rutherford’s model, which said that electrons were free to orbit the nucleus at random.

Classical physics insisted that electrons moving around the nucleus would eventually expire and collapse into the nucleus as they radiated energy. Bohr resolved the issue surrounding Rutherford’s atomic structure by applying the concept of quantum physics set out by MAX PLANCK in 1900.
He suggested that the electrons would have to exist in one of a number of specific orbits, each being defined by specific levels of energy. From the perspective of quantum theory, electrons only existed in these fixed orbits where they did not radiate energy. The electrons could move to higher-level orbits if energy was added, or fall to lower ones if they gave out energy. The innermost orbit contains up to two electrons. The next may contain up to eight electrons. If an inner orbit is not full, an electron from an outer orbit can jump into it. Energy is released as light (a photon) when this happens. The energy that is released is a fixed amount, a quantum.

Quanta of radiation would only ever be emitted as an atom made the transition between states and released energy. Electrons could not exist in between these definite steps. This quantised theory of the electrons’ orbits had the benefits of explaining why atoms always emitted or absorbed specific frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and of providing an understanding of why atoms are stable.

Bohr calculated the amount of radiation emitted during these transitions using Planck’s constant. It fitted physical observations and made sense of the spectral lines of a hydrogen atom, observed when the electromagnetic radiation (caused by the vibrations of electrons) of the element was passed through a prism.
The prism breaks it up into spectral lines, which show the intensities and frequencies of the radiation – and therefore the energy emissions and absorptions of the electrons.

Each of the elements has an atomic number, starting with hydrogen, with an atomic number of one. The atomic number corresponds to the number of protons in the element’s atoms. Bohr had already shown that electrons inhabit fixed orbits around the nucleus of the atom.
Atoms strive to have a full outer shell (allowed orbit), which gives a stable structure. They may share, give away or receive extra electrons to achieve stability. The way that atoms will form bonds with others, and the ease with which they will do it, is determined by the configuration of electrons.
As elements are ordered in the periodic table by atomic number, it can be seen that their position in the table can be used to predict how they will react.

In addition to showing that electrons are restricted to orbits, Bohr’s model also suggested that

  • the orbit closest to the nucleus is lowest in energy, with successively higher energies for more distant orbits.
  • when an electron jumps to a lower orbit it emits a photon.
  • when an electron absorbs energy, it jumps to a higher orbit.

Bohr called the jump to another orbit a quantum leap.

Although it contained elements of quantum theory, the Bohr model had its flaws. It ignored the wave character of the electron. Work by WERNER KARL HEISENBERG later tackled these weaknesses.

Bohr’s theory of complementarity states that electrons may be both a wave and a particle, but that we can only experience them as one or the other at any given time. He showed that contradictory characteristics of an electron could be proved in separate experiments and none of the results can be accepted singly – we need to hold all the possibilities in mind at once. This requires a slight adjustment to the original model of atomic structure, we can no longer say that an electron occupies a particular orbit, but can only give the probability that it is there.

In 1939 he developed a theory of nuclear fission with Jon Archibald Wheeler (b.1911) and realised that the 235uranium isotope would be more susceptible to fission than the more commonly used 238uranium.
The element bohrium is named after him.

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1914 – Manchester, England

‘Moseley’s law – the principle outlining the link between the X-ray frequency of an element and its atomic number’

ca. 1910s --- Physicist Henry Gwyn Jeffreys MOSELEY --- Library Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS


Working with ERNEST RUTHERFORD’s team in Manchester trying to better understand radiation, particularly of radium, Moseley became interested in X-rays and learning new techniques to measure their frequencies.
A technique had been devised using crystals to diffract the emitted radiation, which had a wavelength specific to the element being experimented upon.

In 1913, Moseley recorded the frequencies of the X-ray spectra of over thirty metallic elements and deduced that the frequencies of the radiation emitted were related to the squares of certain incremental whole numbers. These integers were indicative of the atomic number of the element, and its position in the periodic table. This number was the same as the positive charge of the nucleus of the atom (and by implication also the number of electrons with corresponding negative charge).

By uniting the charge in the nucleus with an atomic number, a vital link had been found between the physical atomic make up of an element and its chemical properties, as indicated by where it sits in the periodic table.
This meant that the properties of an element could now be considered in terms of atomic number rather than atomic weight, as had previously been the case – certain inconsistencies in the MENDELEEV version of the periodic table could be ironed out. In addition, the atomic numbers and weights of several missing elements could be predicted and other properties deduced from their expected position in the table.

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1915 – Germany

‘Continental land masses are constantly in motion. The Earth’s land surface was once one big super-continent. About 250 million years ago it broke up into the continents we know today, which have since drifted to their present positions’

Photograph of ALFRED WEGENER ©


Wegener proposed that the continental land masses are moving over the face of the Earth.
Rock under the ocean is principally Basalt, a denser rock than the Granite that makes up the continents. At the start of the Earth’s history there was just a single landmass, which began to break up 200 million years ago, and the parts are still moving. Mountain ranges have been produced where one moving land mass crashes into another, pushing rocks together and forcing them upwards in folds. The tectonic plates move over the asthenosphere carried by convection currents in the magma below.

Up until and beyond Wegener’s death his ideas had little scientific credence – until in the 1950s the mid-Atlantic ridge was discovered. It was this discovery that led to the concept of the tectonic plates.