Synopses & Reviews
Re-creating the frustrations, excitements, and obsessions of 1932, the "miracle year" of British physics, Brian Cathcart reveals in rich detail the astonishing story behind the splitting of the atom. The most celebrated scientific experiment of its time, it would lead to one of mankind's most devastating inventions?the atomic bomb.
All matter is made mostly of empty space. Each of the billions of atoms that comprise it is hollow, its true mass concentrated in a tiny nucleus that, if the atom were a cathedral, would be no bigger than a fly. Discovering its existence three quarters of a century ago was Lord Rutherford's greatest scientific achievement, but even he caught only a glimpse. Almost at the point of despair, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, two young researchers in a grubby basement room at the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, grappled with the challenge. Racing against their American and German counterparts a colorful cast of Nobel Prize winners they would change everything. With paper-and-pencil calculations, a handmade apparatus, the odd lump of plasticine, and some revolutionary physics, Cockroft and Walton raised the curtain on the atomic age.
The Fly in the Cathedral is a riveting and erudite narrative inspired by the dreams that lead the last true gentlemen scientists to the very essence of the universe: the heart of matter.
"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. (Jan.) " Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Cathcart tells this exhilarating story with both verve and precision" The Sunday Telegraph
"An engaging, well-researched account of nuclear physics 75 years ago....A wonderful celebration of hands-on physics back in the days before megateams presided over megabuck atom-smashers." Kirkus Reviews
"Cathcart...may lack a formal background in physics, but he has a talent for making the scientific process accessible to nonspecialists....[H]he captures the considerable suspense and exhilaration among physicists of the 20's and 30's solving some of the fundamental questions about the workings of the universe." Richard Panek, The New York Times Book Review
Re-creating the frustrations, excitements, and obsessions of 1932, the "miracle year" of British physics, Cathcart reveals in rich detail the astonishing story behind the splitting of the atom in a riveting and erudite narrative.
About the Author
A former reporter for Reuters and the Independent, Brian Cathcart is the author of: Test of Greatness: Britain's Struggle for the Atom Bomb, among other books. He lives in North London.