Friday, September 28, 2012

Rutherford’s Rampage

Allen Pei and Syed Sadat Nazrul 

What do you get when you mix ping pong balls and a classic experiment from 1909 that probed the structure of the atom? You guessed it: Rutherford’s Rampage. Students from the NanoEngineering & Technology Society at UC San Diego gave passers by the opportunity to play Rutherford’s Rampage on Tuesday afternoon at Engineers on the Green, a student organization fair at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

“Rutherford” refers to the early 20th Century Rutherford Experiment which provided the first experimental evidence for the atomic nucleus. I remember learning about this “gold foil” experiment in physics class and got a kick out of the exhibit-booth homage to the experiment. Plus, the game is fun to play. 

If you successfully toss a ping pong ball into one of the holes, you are referencing the times when positively charged alpha particles passed by the atomic nuclei in the very thin sheet of gold foil they were shot at. When your ping pong ball hits gold foil and bounces back, that represents the times that positive particles encountered an atom and bounced back. If I played long enough, I probably even might have even grazed the edge of one of the holes – recreating instances in which the positive particles passed through the foil, but had their trajectory changed by atomic nuclei. 

Rutherford’s Experiment is also known at the Geiger-Marsden experiment or Gold foil experiment.

Sure, the game takes some creative license…I don’t think there were points assigned to various sections of gold foil that gave positive particles safe passage. But even the premise is right on: the game looks easier than it actually is. I was less successful in getting ping pong balls to pass through the foil unperturbed…and this parallels the scientific findings. If the “Plum Pudding” model had been accurate, then more of the positive particles should have sailed through the foil than actually did.

When I stopped by the booth, NanoEngineering major Allen Pei and Syed Sadat Nazrul (double major in NanoEngineering and Economics) were running Rutherford’s Rampage.

Hat tip to TESC (the Triton Engineering Student Council) for organizing Engineers on the Green.


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