Discovering the Nucleus: Rutherford’s Gold Foil Experiment

History of Chemistry: Rutherford Gold Foil Experiment

In this article, you will learn the history behind the Rutherford Gold Foil Experiment and the events that led to the discovery of the atomic nucleus. If you enjoy this article, check out our other history of chemistry articles linked below!

Who was Ernest Rutherford?

Biography of Physicist Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford is known as the father of nuclear physics. Born in Brightwater, New Zealand on August 30th, 1871, Rutherford was the fourth of twelve children. His father was a farmer and his mother a school teacher. From a very early age, Rutherford understood the importance of hard work and the power of education. In school, he excelled greatly and at the age of fifteen won an academic scholarship to study at Nelson Collegiate School. Then, at the age of 19, he won another academic scholarship to study at Canterbury College in Christchurch. A few years later he won another scholarship, the exhibition science scholarship, and he left New Zealand to study at Trinity College, Cambridge in England. While there, he conducted research at the Cavendish Laboratory under his advisor J.J. Thomson.

Rutherford's Nuclear World: The Story of the Discovery of the Nucleus |  Young Rutherford | American Institute of Physics
Cavendish Lab: JJ Thomson front middle and Rutherford behind him

During his time at Cavendish Lab, Rutherford faced adversity from his peers. Because he was from New Zealand, he was often ostracized by fellow students. In the end, he used this as motivation to succeed. Which he did as he made a multitude of great discoveries through his research in gases and radioactivity. These included the discovery of different types of radiation, radiometric dating, and the nucleus of an atom.

The Rutherford Gold Foil Experiment

The Experiment

While working as a chair at the University of Manchester, Rutherford conducted the gold-foil experiment alongside Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden. In this experiment, they shot alpha particles–which Rutherford had discovered years prior– directly at a piece of thin gold foil. As the alpha particles passed through, they would hit the phosphorescent screen encasing the foil. When the particles came into contact with the screen, there would be a flash.


Going into the experiment, Rutherford had formed preconceptions for the experiment based on J.J. Thomson’s plum pudding model. He predicted the alpha particles would shoot through the foil with ease. Some of the particles did manage to pass directly through the foil, but some veered from the path either bouncing back or deflecting. Rutherford found this to be an exciting observation and compared it to shooting a bullet at a piece of tissue and having it bounce back.

From this observation, two deductions were made. Firstly, he concluded most of the atom is composed of empty space. Secondly, he concluded there must be something small, dense, and positive inside the atom to repel the positively charged alpha particles. This became the nucleus, which in Latin means the seed inside of a fruit.

File:Rutherford gold foil experiment results.svg
Top: How Rutherford expected the experiment to go. Bottom: How the experiment actually went.

The Nuclear Model

The gold-foil experiment disproved J.J. Thomsons plum pudding model, which hypothesized the atom was positively charged spaced with electrons embedded inside. Therefore, giving way to the nuclear model. In this model, Rutherford theorized the atomic structure was similar to that of the solar system. Where the nucleus was in this middle and surrounded by empty space with orbiting electrons.