Skip to main content

The Fly in the Cathedral – Brian Cathcart *****

The fly in question is the atomic nucleus, which Cathcart tells us was, in the early days of its discovery, compared in size with the whole atom as a fly compares to a cathedral.
This is the story of the race to split the atomic nucleus, not with any application of producing power or bombs in mind, but simply because very little was known about the nucleus, theory needed a lot of help (until quite a way through the book, for example, the neutron was just a crazy idea of Rutherford’s that hardly anyone believed in), and by battering the nucleus into bits more could be found out about it.
It’s terrific stuff. Centred on the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, the main players are John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, two youngish researchers, with in the very near background the remarkable figure of Rutherford. As we follow the ups and downs of their progress in building bizarre equipment, there’s a terrific feeling of presence – it really is as if you have a view on what was happening. Many other scientists play a role – some, like the remarkable George Gamow coming up with crucial ideas, others challengers to split the atom first.
Part of what surprises is the nature of the challenges. These were still fairly crude pieces of equipment, and one of the hardest things proved to be turning the high voltage electricity used to accelerate the protons used to smash into nuclei from AC to DC – the team had to devise their own rectifiers to cope with the high voltages, initially held together with sealing wax or plasticine modelling clay. Then there is the Frankenstein movie reality of the apparatus. Great glass tubes that glowed, sparks crackling across air gaps, and a lab that was so dangerous that the researchers had to crawl along the ground the observing chamber to avoid being electrocuted.
The author is quite blunt about not having a scientific background, but this really doesn’t stand in the way of his telling a fascinating story superbly well. Perhaps the only surprising omission, that might be explained by this, is that he frequently mentions the British physicist P. A. M. Dirac, and also mentions the US experimental discovery of the positron from early accelerator experiments, but never links the two with Dirac’s earlier prediction of the existence of the positron. However, this has nothing to do with the main story, so is a very minor omission. On the workings of the worlds foremost physics laboratory in the early 1930s this book can’t be faulted, and is a must for anyone who enjoys popular science.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artifact Space (SF) - Miles Cameron *****

This is a cracking (and, frankly, wrist-cracking at 568 pages) piece of space opera. That's a term that is sometimes used as a put-down to suggest pulp rubbish, but I use it affectionately. It's not trying to be great literature, but it's a great read, which is all I want from a book.  The author mentions Alistair Reynolds as an inspiration - and it's certainly true that there's something of Reynolds' (or Banks') sweeping imagination of a space-based civilisation. But for me, there's more here of a modern equivalent of Robert Heinlein at his best. Not the soppy stuff he produced towards the end of his career, but the period that peaked with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . In fact, the basic storyline has a distinct resemblance to that of Heinlein's Starman Jones . In that 1950s novel, the main character is from a spacegoing family who manages to get a place on a ship despite not having the qualifications, and with his skill manages in the end to save

A Dominant Character - Samanth Subramanian ****

When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life. Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics - and along with his irascible, blunt (well, rude really) personality, delight in shocking others and apparent enthusiasm for the dangers of warfare, comes across as a fascinating, if sometimes repulsive study (on the whole, Subramanian takes a more forgiving view, though without holding back on Haldane's faults). Apart from his decades-long enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and ruthless (and fearless) approach to military life, we see how Haldane's science brought huge strides i

This is Your Mind on Plants - Michael Pollan ***

There is a powerfully American cultural flavour to this book that even comes through in the title. I'll be honest, that title baffled me initially. The first thing it made me think of was the TV show 'This is Your Life', then I wondered if it was about having ideas while lying on a straw mattress. In reality it's a complete misnomer - it's entirely about Michael Pollan's life on plants (and the psychoactive chemicals derived from them) - it's a very me-oriented book. I was sold this as a science book, but it really isn't. Pollan describes his interactions with three plant-derived chemical substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline - but there's hardly anything about the science of what's involved, just a brief, dictionary-like reference to how these chemicals act. It's all about Pollan, what he experiences, how he feels. That Americanness also comes across in his casual acceptance that someone he deals with keeps an assault rifle by his desk,