If you want to understand how something works, you can dismantle it and study its pieces. But what if the thing you're curious about is too small to see, even with the most powerful microscope? Brian Cathcart's The Fly in the Cathedral
tells the intriguing story of how scientists were able to take atoms apart to reveal the secrets of their structures. To keep the story gripping, Cathcart focuses on a time (1932, the annus mirabilis
of British physics), a place (Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory), and a few main characters (Ernest Rutherford, the "father of nuclear physics," and his protégés, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton).
Rutherford and his team knew that the long-accepted atomic model was held together by nothing more than trumped-up math and hope. They hoped to find out what held oppositely charged protons and electrons together, and what strange particles shared the nucleus with protons. In a series of remarkable experiments done on homemade apparatus, these Cambridge scientists moved atomic science to within an inch of its ultimate goal. Finally, Cockcroft and Walton--competing furiously with their American and German peers--put together the machine that would forever change history by splitting an atom. The Fly in the Cathedral combines all the right elements for a great science history: historical context, gritty detail, wrenching failure, and of course, glorious victory. Although the miracles that occurred at Cambridge in 1932 were to result in the fearful, looming threat of atomic warfare, Cathcart allows readers to find unfiltered joy in the accomplishments of a few brilliant, ingenious scientists. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Cathcart (Test of Greatness: Britain's Struggle for the Atom Bomb
), a former reporter for Reuters, presents a superb account of the genesis of nuclear physics in the first third of the 20th century. Although the centerpiece of his story is the experiment performed on April 14, 1932, by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, in which an atom of lithium was split into two alpha particles (they would win a Nobel prize for this 19 years later), Cathcart fully describes the experiment's scientific and social context. Through crisp prose, interesting analogies and ample insight, he makes the basics of nuclear physics accessible while demonstrating the passion scientists have for their work. Cockcroft and Walton both worked under Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford at the prestigious Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University at a time when precious little was known about the nucleus at the center of every atom. The race to understand the inner workings of the nucleus and to split an atom into its component parts was an international one, including labs in Germany, Denmark, Russia and the United States. The great progress that was made in a short time was all the more amazing given that labs had limited budgets and virtually all equipment first had to be conceptualized and then made from scratch. Cathcart instills in the reader a sense of excitement as the nuclear age unfolds around the world. B&w illus.
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