Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom

by Brian Cathcart
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux 320 pages,
15 b/w photos, $25.00, January, 2005)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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It was always easy to tell when famed physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford was irritated. His intimidating stature and booming voice made him a dominant figure wherever he worked. Those physical qualities plus his accomplishments (which included the 1908 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and the discovery of the atomic nucleus three years later) were his strongest assets as director of Britain's famed Cavendish Laboratory.

So when Rutherford marched into a laboratory on a Wednesday morning in April 1932 and told John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton that it was time to stop fiddling with the design of their high-voltage proton accelerator and to see what it was capable of, the two scientists wasted no time putting a lithium-foil target in place along with a zinc sulfide screen to detect whatever activity would result.

It wasn't fear of the director that spurred them into action. They knew Rutherford's instincts about what needed to be done next in an investigation were usually right. When Cockcroft and Walton turned on their apparatus the next day, they observed that it was making alpha particles--and history. They were the first researchers to split a nucleus, the central speck of an atom so small that it is often described using the metaphor that Brian Cathcart adopts as the title of his new book, The Fly in the Cathedral. And they had done it using a voltage much lower than what nearly everyone thought was necessary for the job.

By the time readers reach that "Red Letter Day" in the book, they know Cockcroft, Walton, and the entire cast of characters so well that they feel like cheering. Thanks to Mr. Cathcart's skillful story-telling, they are aware that other research groups were also able to achieve that milestone, most notably the cyclotron group of Ernest O. Lawrence at Berkeley. Yet the Cambridge scientists won the international race to split the atom and opened the field of experimental nuclear physics.

Readers also owe Mr. Cathcart a debt of gratitude for rescuing this important story from the historical shadows. Lawrence's cyclotron would soon prove to be a far superior technology for the work, and the development of nuclear bombs in the 1940s quickly won the dominant share of journalistic attention. Lawrence won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1939, twelve years before Cockcroft and Walton were similarly honored.

Thus this book could legitimately be deemed "important," but that designation would not do its author justice. It is as rich in characters and challenges as a great novel and is every bit as satisfying "a read."

Physicist, children's science writer, and book critic Fred Bortz is currently writing a history of physics in the twentieth century for young adults.