Historic physics lab is one of England’s top ten places for progress

The building where Nobel Prize-winner Ernest Rutherford discovered the structure of the atom in 1911 has been placed in the country’s top ten sites for ‘power, protest and progress’ by Historic England.

The Rutherford Building, which was formerly known as The Physics Laboratory, has been chosen alongside places such as The Palace of Westminster and the site of the Peterloo Massacre, as part of the top ten.

The discovery that the mass of an atom is concentrated in its nucleus, a particle 1,000 times smaller than the atom itself, with orbiting electrons making up rest of the atom, paved the way for splitting of the atom, and the initiation of the field of nuclear physics. For this, Rutherford is known as the “father of nuclear physics”.

Rutherford’s discoveries heralded not only nuclear power and weapons, but also many other technologies which we rely on today such as radiotherapy to fight cancer.

The University remains a leader in nuclear physics – as home to the Dalton Nuclear Institute - the UK’s most advanced academic nuclear research capability. Here, research is undertaken across the entire nuclear fuel cycle – from innovative manufacturing techniques to waste management.

The University is also a leader in cancer sciences, working on imaging, proton beam therapy and radiotherapy.

Dr Francis Livens, Director of the Dalton Institute said: “Rutherford’s discoveries have changed our world. Having his lab placed on this list serves as a proud reminder that the ground-breaking work we carry out today has its origins right here in Manchester.”

The Rutherford Building was among ten sites chosen from hundreds of public nominations in Historic England’s campaign ‘Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places’, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance.

Professor Francis Livens
Rutherford’s discoveries have changed our world. Having his lab placed on this list serves as a proud reminder that the ground-breaking work we carry out today has its origins right here in Manchester.
Professor Francis Livens

For David Olusoga, the historian who judged the nominations, the building “is a critically important site in the creation of the nuclear age, in which we still live.”

The building was not only occupied by Rutherford: Henry Moseley's physical explanation of the different properties of chemical elements and the consequent Rutherford-Bohr model of the atom were developed there in 1915, and the 'splitting of the atom' in 1919. Other members of the Manchester team included Hans Geiger (co-inventor of the Geiger counter), Georg Halevy (radioactive tracers), Ernest Marsden (atomic nucleus) and James Chadwick (a Manchester student who later discovered the neutron).

When Rutherford went to Cambridge in 1919, Manchester appointed William Lawrence Bragg, who had shared a Nobel Prize with his father for inventing x-ray crystallography. He was succeeded by Patrick Blackett, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on cosmic rays and a pioneer of geomagnetism.

Work on cosmic rays led to radio astronomy and the University's world famous 'big dish', created by Bernard Lovell at Jodrell Bank in the 1950s. Jodrell Bank, part of the University of Manchester, also features in the Historic England 100 list, where it is included in the Science and Discovery section.

The ten places in the final category Power, Protest & Progress are:

  • The Palace of Westminster, London
  • St Peter’s Square, Manchester
  • Bristol Bus Station, Wapping Road, Bristol
  • The Pitman’s Parliament, Durham Miners’ Hall, Redhill, Durham
  • Cable Street, East London
  • 73 Riding House Street, Westminster, London
  • Group Operation Room, Uxbridge, London
  • Sycamore in the village of Tolpuddle, Dorset
  • Rutherford Building, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester
  • Bosworth Battlefield, Leicestershire

For more on Rutherford and the Rutherford Building, visit the University’s Heritage website

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