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Tech Q&A

Richard Reeves

Describe your latest project.
Richard Reeves A Force of Nature is a short biography — part of the Great Discoveries series — of Ernest Rutherford, a boy from the frontier of New Zealand, born 15 mountain miles from the nearest settlement, who, with Albert Einstein, became one of the two most famous scientists of the first half of the 20th Century. He was the great experimenter; Einstein the great theorist. Working with his hands, devising experiments on table-tops, Rutherford created nuclear physics — and, incidentally, was the first to prove that E really does equal mc, squared. They were very different men — "The Merry Boy," Einstein, and "The Boisterous Boy," someone said — but they were friends and the heroes of "The Heroic Age of Physics." Rutherford looked inward to find out what nature was made of, discovering the atom as we know it, and Einstein looked out, searching for the universal in the Universe. Rutherford won a Nobel for discovering "half-life" — and the age of the earth — before he was 30 years old and also led the British team that was the first to split the atom in 1933. Eleven of his students and associates also went on to win Nobels, including Neils Bohr and the leaders of the British team that joined the Americans in Los Alamos to build the atomic bomb.

With all of that, and with mentoring students who left science to excel in other fields — Chaim Weitzman and C.P. Snow among them — Rutherford could still be mistaken for an Austalian farmer, or at least he once was by a New York Times writer. For me — I began work as an engineer — the book gave me the chance to re-create the thrilling experiments of perhaps the greatest experimenter of all time, back in the laboratory where I studied as a young man. Part of doing all this was to try to show my classmates that I wasn't as dumb as they thought I was.

  1. A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford (Great Discoveries)
    $23.95 New Hardcover add to wishlist
    A new intellectual biography of Ernest Rutherford, the twentieth century's greatest experimental physicist.
What inspires you to sit down and write?
Well, I could say I do it to support a large family, but I would do it for nothing. I simply think that, with the possible exception of science, it is the most important and lasting work of the world.

What do you do for relaxation?
Play ball, work on the house, read.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
Any and all of them.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I would guess it will involve health: something in organic chemistry, biology or pharmaceuticals.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
I think I'd choose Rutherford on the Sunday before Christmas, 1911, when he looked up at the dinner table in Cambridge (England) and said to a young mathematician, Charles Darwin: "I know what the atom looks like." He had thought for two years about the results of his experiments and imagined a tiny, incredibly dense center (orbited by tinier bits of matter/energy) he would call the "nucleus" — that was the beginning of the nucleur age and the world would never be the same.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
Best: English, I could always write. Worst: all other languages.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Not tempt me into searching for the answers to intriguing little questions that take me away from what I'm doing. And hide my e-mail until the end of the day. There is a lottery quality to continual delivery of mail; you check every few minutes to see if you've won a McArthur award or something like that.

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
The United States, because as science gets bigger and bigger and smaller and smaller at the same time, research becomes more expensive — and we have the money. No doubt China will give us a real race, but to me that is just an argument for more immigration and more foreign students in our great universities.

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Richard Reeves, an award-winning historian and columnist, is the author of many books, including President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. He currently teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and lives in New York City.

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