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.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…