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The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom Hardcover – January 5, 2005

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Editorial Reviews Review

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (January 12, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374157162
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374157166
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #509,684 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
People had always thought that solid matter was, well, solid. It was only when scientists had an understanding of what atoms were that they began to realize that there were huge spaces between atoms. Later they got to understand that an atom itself consisted mostly of empty space, a big outer shell where electrons whizzed around, containing only a tiny nucleus. The image of the big shell and the tiny nucleus was given by comparison, a comparison that gives the title to _The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom_ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Brian Cathcart. Actually, the atom had been split long before, if the atom, which had been considered indivisible, is split by chipping electrons off that outer cathedral-like shell. But "splitting the atom" has long had the real meaning of splitting the nucleus, and this is the intriguing story of the stolid, energetic and gentlemanly scientists at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge who in 1932 brought forth the birth of nuclear physics.

The commanding presence in the book, just as he was as he oversaw the lab, is Sir Earnest Rutherford, a "barreling, thundering, penetrating presence in the world of physics, a great rowdy boy full of ideas and energy." He was thrilled by the ardor of the chase in scientific exploration, and he was an ingenious experimenter, although he was often clumsy with apparatus. In 1927, Rutherford as its president addressed the Royal Society, proposing a new way forward for solving the problem of the composition of the nucleus. If it were possible to accelerate particles artificially, he said, by huge voltages of electricity, they could be slammed against the nucleus and the scattered wreckage analyzed.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Cassey Lee on July 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In my school days, I had come across the names of Rutherford, J.J.Thomson and Chadwick but not the two protagonists of this book - John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton. Cockcroft and Walton were the first physicists who successfully 'split' or disintegrated the nucleus.

What is interesting about this book is that it manages to provide us with a feel of the excitement and challenges experienced by physicists at the Cavendish Lab during the 1920s-1930s. Most general history of physics tend to focus on ideas and theories but not the nitty gritty aspects of building apparatus and conducting experiments. Instead of taking the former route, this book emphasizes on the importance of empirical physics and its interactions with theoretical physics. At the center of this story is how Cockcroft and Walton raced to build a particle accelerator that is used to bombard the nucleas.

But machines are not the central element of the book. The author devotes a great deal of space to building a human aspect of the story. Aside from Cockcroft and Walton, we are are fed with vignettes of Rutherford (who provided crucial leadership at Cavendish) as well as others like Chadwick, Gamow, and the Bohr brothers.

A particularly interesting aspect of the book is the competition between the different groups of scientists in different countries (UK, USA, France) working on the same problem. This is more intense given the winner-take-all nature of breakthrough discoveries in term of academic (and public) fame.

This book should be of great interest to readers who enjoy reading about the general history of physics. Lack of knowledge or memory of physics would not be an obstacle to the enjoyment of this very readable book. Highly recommended.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By AussieInUSA on January 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The Fly in the Cathedral takes the microscope to Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory in the late 1920s-early 1930s, a period of explosive growth in physics and, in particular, nuclear physics. The knowledge we so take for granted today - that the nucleus (the "fly") is comprised of neutrons and protons with electrons occupying certain energy levels far from the nucleus (the "cathedral") - was suspected but never proven conclusively by the mid 1920s.

The author, Brian Cathcart, does a credible job at introducing the main players - Ernest Walton, John Cockcroft, Ernest Rutherford, James Chadwick - and evinces their personalities by describing their manner of working and by examining their interactions with others. The overwhelming impression is of very modest men making extremely immodest progress in understanding the very fundamentals of nature. Indeed, they all went on to win Nobel prizes; the sheer brain power of these men is inspiring.

The subject matter of the book might be nuclear physics but the author does a terrific job of explaining things and provides some very neat analogies to help the reader, such as describing continuous functions like temperature as "milk" and discontinuous things like quanta of energy as "eggs". In context, this makes a lot of sense for readers without the benefit of a background in physics or chemistry. Those who do understand the essentials of nuclear physics will not feel condescended.

Rutherford was the head of the Cavendish Laboratory during this period and his group proved two important things: Chadwick of the existence of the neutron and Walton & Cockcroft the "splitting" of the atom, although technically they weren't splitting so much as cleaving. Rutherford's mind is described as "like the bow of a battleship.
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