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The Fly in the Cathedral
How A Small Group of Cambridge Scientists Won The Race to Split the Atom
By Brian Cathcart
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
New York, New York, 2005
HC, 308 pages US$25.00
ISBN: 0-3741-5716-2

The day that changed the world

By Steven Martinovich
web posted January 31, 2005

The Fly in the Cathedral: How A Small Group of Cambridge Scientists Won The Race to Split the AtomHistory is more than just dates but April 14, 1932 ought to resonate for us like few others. We are in the habit of declaring that certain events changed the world but on that day two scientists at Cambridge University, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, did just that. In a lecture hall converted into a laboratory the two men split the atomic nucleus, a feat that eventually ushered in the nuclear era.

Their experiment, part of the worldwide race to advance nuclear physics, is recounted in Brian Cathcart's engaging The Fly in the Cathedral: How A Small Group of Cambridge Scientists Won The Race to Split the Atom. Cathcart chronicles a fascinating period in physics when the scene shifted from the small scale with workbench-sized equipment and small teams of scientists to the days of relatively larger experiments and budgets.

Although today the structure of the atom is familiar to every high school physics student, in the 1920s the basic building block of the universe was still cloaked in mystery. Scientists like Ernest Lawrence, Niels Bohr, the Curies and Werner Heisenberg, among others, worked feverishly to tease out the atom's secrets. Limiting their efforts was the rudimentary nature of their equipment and conflicting theories of what was to be found.

The same research was occurring at Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge under the aegis of Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford, a pioneer in nuclear physics. Although the Cavendish maintained a relaxed atmosphere -- work rarely began before 10:00am and its scientists were punctual about leaving promptly at 6:00pm -- it also boasted an impressive collection of talent from around the world. Among them were Cockcroft and Walton.

It was Rutherford's earlier work that essentially set the scene for Cockcroft and Walton. Two decades previous he had put together a basic model of the atom -- a nucleus surrounded by one or more electrons. The next great challenge -- besides a more accurate model which was eventually constructed by another Cavendish scientist named James Chadwick -- was to break open the nucleus to see what was there.

That work fell on Cockcroft and Walton. As Cathcart illustrates, the challenge demanded no small amount of work. Given the rudimentary state of scientific equipment, the pair had to construct what would eventually be the world's first working particle accelerator, often times by trial and error and the use of unconventional materials like plasticine. Complicating their mission was the prevailing belief that millions of volts were necessary to split the atom -- or to be more precise, to smash apart a nucleus with another atomic particle -- beyond the resources available to almost every scientist including those at the Cavendish.

Although the pair were restrained in that classically Victorian manner -- Walton's love letters to his fiancé were amazingly proper -- their passion for their work shines through in Cathcart's account. With the support of Rutherford, and an admonishment that prompted them to run the experiment that split the atom, the two worked relentlessly towards their goal. Their drive and determination were necessary to overcome the many obstacles that anyone blazing a new trail experiences, particularly in an atom-sized world that could only be observed indirectly at that point in history.

And yet, as Cathcart points out, few scientists thought that splitting the atom would change the world. Rutherford brushed aside speculation that the achievement could herald a new source of energy or weapons of unimaginable power. Yet it was one of those rare times when the media understood the ramifications of a scientific event better than the scientists, though one newspaper wondered if the technology could be used to turn lead into gold. The Daily Mirror was more circumspect when it declared, "Let it be split, so long as it does not explode."

The Fly in the Cathedral is an engaging effort that deserves praise for explaining nuclear physics in an easily digestible manner and Cathcart's ability to slowly build excitement with material usually reported in a more scholarly manner. Although he spends comparatively little time exploring the people behind the achievement, we nonetheless remain interested in the cast of characters that drove the events of the story. The names of Cockcroft and Walton are unfortunately less well known than many of their peers but hopefully The Fly in the Cathedral will rectify that.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Buy The Fly in the Cathedral: How A Small Group of Cambridge Scientists Won The Race to Split the Atom at Amazon.com for only $16.50 (34% off)

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