Being able to write out the key results of Rutherford, Marsden and Muller’s famous gold leaf scattering experiment is one of the requirements of the GCSE Physics syllabus. It comes up both in the AQA P2 module and the iGCSE Edexcel Physics syllabus as well. This is usually accompanied by a comparison with the older “Plum Pudding” model of the atom. I use this section of the video in my online tutoring sessions for Physics as it is a must watch for a deeper understanding of Rutherford’s experimental set up and his findings.
It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life. It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.
– Ernest Rutherford
But writing out the correct answer on a test is one thing, and understanding the human story of ingenuity, perseverance and scientific intuition is another. We tend to learn things better when they are presented as stories. And the story of Rutherford’s experiment is truly remarkable. What he found was mind boggling at the time, and even today it is hard to imagine how empty an atom actually is.
Professor Jim Al Khalili visits the actual laboratory in Manchester were Rutherford got his two assistants to explore the atom in detail. In this superb BBC documentary piece he shows the actual equipment Rutherford used, and the story of how one seemingly random decision by Rutherford ended up unraveling the mystery of the atom. The video is part of a BBC series called Atom. Over here I have linked to the exact point in the video where Khalili starts to look at the props Rutherford used and his story. A must watch for all GCSE students studying this for their exam next week. It will bring this particular topic to life. So press play and be taken on a journey of the most important chapter in the discovery of the inner workings of the atom.