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Ernest Rutherford's Gold Foil Experiment: Physics Lab

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  • 0:03 Gold Foil Experiment
  • 0:43 Rutherford Experiment Steps
  • 1:41 What Did His Results Show?
  • 2:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

This lesson explains how the Rutherford gold foil experiment was carried out and what it told us about the atom. You can take a short quiz after the lesson to test what you've learned.

What Is the Gold Foil Experiment?

Ernest Rutherford was a British physicist who is particularly famous for studying the structure of the atom. Prior to his gold foil experiment, scientists imagined the atom as a large area of positive charge, with negative charges stuck on the outside. This was called the plum pudding model, because the negative charges were like plums stuck in the positively charged plum pudding.

But Rutherford's gold foil experiment (otherwise known as the Geiger-Marsden experiment) changed all that. After the experiment, we understood that the positive charge was concentrated in the nucleus, and that most of the atom is empty space. Let's talk about how he did it.

Rutherford Experiment Steps

The equipment needed for Rutherford's experiment was as follows:

  • A radioactive alpha source
  • A 360-degree phosphorescent screen
  • A microscope
  • And, a thin piece of gold foil

Here are the steps that were completed:

Step 1: Position the piece of gold foil between the alpha source and the screen.

Step 2: Point the alpha particles being created by the alpha source at the piece of gold foil.

Step 3: Use the microscope to observe different parts of the screen and look for scintillations (little flashes of light).

Step 4: Note down how many scintillations you see at different angles from the beam of alpha particles.

And that's really it. But what did he discover?

What Did His Results Show?

Rutherford's results were, at the time, surprising. Most of the alpha particles went straight through the gold foil as if it wasn't even there, and hit the screen at an angle of zero degrees. The further they moved around the screen, the less particles were found. But even then, there were some particles that deflected at HUGE angles.

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