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The Rutherford Nitrogen-to-Oxygen Transmutation Myth
"The world’s first successful alchemist – Rutherford changed nitrogen into oxygen, which was an endeavour that had eluded chemists for centuries." - John Campbell, Rutherford Scholar x

For at least 70 years, the near-consensus of the scientific community about the person who discovered the first confirmed artificial nuclear transmutation has been wrong. An illustrated example of the myth appears in a frame of a 1948 comic book produced by the General Electric Co. The book, Adventures Inside the Atom, sponsored by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, was propaganda intended to promote the new age of atomic energy.

The book begins in ancient Greece with Aristotle and the concept of the atom. Eventually, the story arrives at the University of Cambridge, in the laboratory of Ernest Rutherford.

Myth of the first artificial nuclear transmutation, 1948, General Electric Co.

According to the myth, Rutherford bombarded nitrogen nuclei with energetic alpha particles and, in doing so, became the world's first successful alchemist, changing the element nitrogen into the element oxygen.

He did no such thing. Instead, Patrick Blackett, a research fellow working in Rutherford's lab in Cambridge, performed the experiment, obtained the data, analyzed it correctly, and published it in a journal article in 1925. The full details, not only of this history but also of how I learned the facts, are in my 2016 book Lost History. At the time, I had located only two historians who had published the correct version of this history: Milorad Mladjenovic and Peter Galison. I later found that Mary Jo Nye and Roger Stuewer also correctly described the history.

In early 2017, after the book published, I began contacting prominent organizations or organizations with top-ranking search results for the topic and requested that they make corrections to their Web sites.

The American Institute of Physics and the U.S. Department of Energy (hyperlinked below) performed the most comprehensive independent review of my findings.

 
Links to Versions and Dates Retrieved
ADDITIONAL RESPONSES
ORGANIZATION (PAGE) ORIGINAL INTERMEDIATE
CORRECTION
American Institute of Physics 6/23/2014   7/21/2017 8/18/2017
Atomic Heritage Society (Blackett Page) 7/14/2018   7/19/2018  
Atomic Heritage Society (Rutherford Page) 6/25/2018   7/3/2018  
Britannica.com (Alpha Page) 6/25/2018   8/24/2018  
Cambridge University 3/13/2017   9/12/2017 5/1/2017
CERN Courier 6/25/2018   pending  
ChemViews 6/25/2018   7/11/2018  
Imperial College (See Nobel Prize Winners) 3/26/2014   7/14/2017 7/31/2017
Institute of Physics 7/10/2018 9/8/2018 9/28/2018  
LeMoyne University (Transmutation page) 10/16/2018      
LibreText (Initiated at UC Davis) 6/19/2018   10/26/2018  
McGill University 10/16/2018      
Nobel Foundation (Rutherford) 3/13/2017   3/24/2017  
Nobel Foundation (Blackett) 3/24/2017   incomplete 4/28/2017
Nucleonica 6/25/2018   deleted  
Oxford University Press 3/13/2017   7/14/2018  
Physics World 10/16/2018      
Royal Society of Chemistry 7/2/2018 8/31/2018 10/23/2018  
Royal Society 9/9/2018   9/11/2018 9/10/2018
Scientific American 10/14/2018      
The Scientist 6/25/2018   10/15/2018  
University of California Santa Barbara 6/25/2018   7/19/2018  
University of Manchester 6/25/2018 7/10/2018 incomplete 6/27/2018
U.S. Department of Energy 6/23/2014 10/30/2017 2/11/2018 7/11/2018

 


First confirmed artificial elemental transmutation, depicted on 7-cent New Zealand stamp and erroneously attributed to Rutherford.