Rutherford's Den, Christchurch: The storage room that Ernest Rutherford used to change the world

Exactly a century ago, an announcement was made at a meeting of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society that would change the world.

The New Zealand-born son of a dairy farmer from Spring Grove, near Nelson, had become the first person in history to split the atom.

The Nuclear Age had been born.

Professor Ernest Rutherford, then the 39-year-old head of Physics at Manchester University, was already a Nobel laureate (in 1908 the physicist had been amused to be awarded the prize for chemistry!).

But it's generally accepted Rutherford's best work was completed after the Nobel prize, either in Manchester or at Cambridge University which he joined in 1919, earning him the title "the father of nuclear physics".

He's been called "the greatest experimental scientist since Michael Faraday" and is buried next to Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey.

Yet I'm here in Christchurch on the South Island to see where the story of discovery really began: Rutherford's Den.

Aged 18 in 1890, Rutherford – whose father James was largely uneducated – won a scholarship to study physics at Canterbury College, which then occupied the 23 heritage-listed buildings in what is now the Christchurch Arts Centre.

There he developed a reputation for his enthusiastic pursuit of innovative experimentation while achieving first-class honours in maths and science.

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As a requirement of his master's degree, Rutherford began research, but the college didn't have a physics lab. So initially he worked in the chemistry department"s "old tin shed", various corridors, then the college's magnificent Great Hall when it wasn't required for exams.

Finally, tired of continually moving his equipment, he applied in April 1884 to use "the den" under the west end of the college clock tower which, until then, had been used by undergraduates to store their gowns whenever they left the college premises.

The den was perfect for his pioneering work on high frequency magnetisation of iron because his equipment required a solid floor unshaken by the countless trams rattling down Worcester Boulevard.

So this inauspicious underground bunker became the crucible of Rutherford's reputation until news of his genius saw him move in 1895 to Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.

When the University of Canterbury vacated the Christchurch site in 1977, the den (containing much of the equipment Rutherford used) became a modest but stuffy local attraction – at least until the devastating earthquake of 2011.

Fortunately, much of the Arts Centre had already been reinforced against earthquakes, but the entire complex was unsafe and became the focus of a $NZ290 million restoration project.

Fast forward to August 2016. That's when the completely reinvented Rutherford's Den reopened. It's one of the first new attractions in what will eventually become one of the rebuilt Christchurch's main tourist drawcards. Galleries, cinemas, festival venues and cafes will be sandwiched a five-minute stroll away from the Christchurch Art Gallery, Canterbury Museum, the Avon River and the Botanic Gardens.

But spare an hour to visit Rutherford's Den. It's hard to overstate what a superb science museum it is. Sure, its focus is on one man, and one area of science. But what a man, and what scientific discoveries he made.

Among his more significant contributions to our modern world were (and here I'm cheating): the discovery of alpha and beta radiation; a new and more accurate method of dating the age of the Earth; discovery of the atomic nucleus; the theory of nuclear reaction; and predicting the existence of the neutron.

This is heavy stuff. But the new museum is not simply a stunning display of how to make an exciting destination out of limited space while keeping its heritage credentials alive. It's a textbook example of how to engage visitors – particularly children – in the wonder of science.

There are all sorts of interactive challenges, games, computerised explanations of complex theorem, informative information panels, sci-fi allusions, and – of course – some of Rutherford's original Canterbury equipment.

It's all designed to show that "physics can be fun" – and when was the last time you thought that since the thrill of getting your bunsen burner licence in Year 7?

Of course, it helps that Rutherford was such an engaging fellow. Known as "Ern" to his 11 brothers and sisters, he was still mistaken for a dishevelled Kiwi farmer even when he was as world famous as Albert Einstein.

Do I now understand nuclear physics after visiting Rutherford's Den?

No, but then I've never understood the scientific techniques Leonardo da Vinci used to paint that enigmatic Mona Lisa smile either.

Sometimes, you just have to just have to stand back and admire genius, knowing you are not in their company.

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FLY

Christchurch is served by several airlines from either Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, the Gold Coast or Perth including Qantas, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Virgin, Jet Star and China Airlines.

STAY

The George, one of only two five-star hotels in Christchurch, overlooks Hagley Park in the heart of the city. See thegeorge.com

VISIT

Rutherford's Den is open 10am-5pm, every day except for Christmas Day. Adults $NZ20, children $NZ10, family pass $NZ60. See artscentre.org.nz/rutherford-den/about-the-den

Steve Meacham was a guest of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism.

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