Friday, January 27, 2006

Brian Cathcart – The Fly in the Cathedral (*)

The only other book I have read of Brian Cathcart’s is his wonderful, blow by blow account of election night 1997 and the meltdown of the Tories (Were you still up for Portillo?).

This is a completely different book and concentrates on the first experimental and theoretical steps taken by a smallish group of scientists around the famous physicist Ernest Rutherford. It describes the attempts made by physicists to understand the internal structure of the atom and culminates, in what was described in the media of the day as the “splitting of the atom”.

While the books subtitle, in a somewhat jingoistic turn of phrase, argues that it was a small group of Cambridge based scientists who did the work, the actual story is much more one of international co-operation, the exchange and expansion of ideas and theories from around the world, combined with a friendly element of competition to build the apparatus and open up the atomic structure.

Cathcart makes it clear that he doesn’t want to put off non-scientists with complex physics. So his analogies are simple (if a little irksome at times, for those in the know!) but illuminating.

The story races along with more excitement than most physics lecturers I attended, and you are left with an impression of almost bumbling gentlemen stumbling from discovery to discovery. Of course this isn’t true. As Cathcart makes clear, atomic physics could only be discovered because the era of the gentleman scientist, experimenting in his country mansion was over. Instead, this research was driven by government funds and support from industrial giants.

Ultimately, the work these physicists did got them the Nobel prize. As early as the 1930s, it was clear that the processes being unleashed could be used for more sinister purposes. But no one should lay the blame at the door of these men, who really were simply trying to understand the world better.

(*) Full title – The Fly in the Cathedral; How a Small Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the Race to Split the Atom

No comments: