Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford

by Richard Reeves

(Norton, $23.95, 160 pages, December, 2007)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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In the epilogue of his new book, A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford, award-winning historian and columnist Richard Reeves provides the best reason for reviewers to call attention to it:

"There were many surprises for me along the way in writing this book, but the biggest by far was that Americans who did not work in the sciences did not seem to know who Rutherford was."

How could we Americans not know the experimental genius who provided the laboratory counterpoint to Einstein's theoretical breakthroughs a century ago? Not know the man who characterized the three types of radioactivity; who discovered the alchemist's dream of transmuting one element into another; who discovered the atomic nucleus; who predicted and the existence of the neutron and in whose laboratories it was found; and whose mentorship was essential to the researchers who first split the atom?

For more than three decades, Rutherford was the dominant figure in subatomic physics. Could we be so provincial as not to know this New Zealand farm boy whose work first earned world renown at the famed Cavendish Laboratory of England's Cambridge University, then at McGill University in Montreal, then back across the Atlantic at Manchester University, and finally again at the Cavendish?

Apparently so, and, as our British friends might say, "More's the pity." A Force of Nature is not intended to be the definitive story of Rutherford's life and work. Yet this compact biography of Ernest Rutherford is rich in both human stories and discovery.

It provides a window into the great events in which Rutherford was instrumental and into the great people who influenced and were influenced by him. It introduces readers to a down-to-earth man whose brilliant insights and boisterous personality made him "a force of nature" to his students and colleagues.

Ernest Rutherford was a beloved figure, a great scientific leader, a rescuer of many important physicists fleeing the Nazis, and an active researcher until six days before his death at age 66 in 1937. To physicists reflecting on the transformation of their science in the twentieth century, Rutherford ranks on a par with Einstein.

Yet Einstein became the face of physics in the world, while Rutherford's accomplishments continue to be underappreciated, especially in the United States.

Writes Mr. Reeves: "Bill Clinton, celebrating the American century in his 1997 inaugural address, proclaimed, 'Along the way, Americans split the atom.' No one, to my knowledge, rose to contradict that proof that winners write the history."

A Force of Nature is an author's one small step toward righting that presidential oversight.

Physicist Fred Bortz's numerous books include a history of physics in the twentieth century entitled Physics: Decade by Decade, which profiles Ernest Rutherford as Scientist of the Decade for 1911-1920.