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

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9780140279061: Fly in the Cathedral: How a Small Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the Race to Split the Atom
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The splitting of the atom, performed in a shabby Cambridge lab in April 1932, was a triumph of ingenuity over adversity. John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, under the stern gaze of the brilliantly eccentric Lord Rutherford, cobbled together handmade or recycled components - while American rivals had state-of-the-art equipment - to make one of the great scientific breakthroughs of all time. In Brian Cathcart's hands, this remarkable tale of success on a shoe string - packed with larger-than-life characters, struggles against the odds, personal tragedy, love and bloody-minded determination - makes for one of the most inspiring stories of scientific derring-do ever told.

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If you want to understand how something works, you can dismantle it and study its pieces. But what if the thing you're curious about is too small to see, even with the most powerful microscope? Brian Cathcart's The Fly in the Cathedral tells the intriguing story of how scientists were able to take atoms apart to reveal the secrets of their structures. To keep the story gripping, Cathcart focuses on a time (1932, the annus mirabilis of British physics), a place (Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory), and a few main characters (Ernest Rutherford, the "father of nuclear physics," and his protégés, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton).

Rutherford and his team knew that the long-accepted atomic model was held together by nothing more than trumped-up math and hope. They hoped to find out what held oppositely charged protons and electrons together, and what strange particles shared the nucleus with protons. In a series of remarkable experiments done on homemade apparatus, these Cambridge scientists moved atomic science to within an inch of its ultimate goal. Finally, Cockcroft and Walton--competing furiously with their American and German peers--put together the machine that would forever change history by splitting an atom. The Fly in the Cathedral combines all the right elements for a great science history: historical context, gritty detail, wrenching failure, and of course, glorious victory. Although the miracles that occurred at Cambridge in 1932 were to result in the fearful, looming threat of atomic warfare, Cathcart allows readers to find unfiltered joy in the accomplishments of a few brilliant, ingenious scientists. --Therese Littleton

About the Author:

Born and educated in Ireland, Brian Cathcart was Reuters correspondent before joining the Independent on Sunday. He has written four previous books: Test of Greatness: Britain's Struggle for the Atom Bomb (1994), Were You Still Up for Portillo? (1997), The Case of Stephen Lawrence (1999), which won the Orwell Prize and the Crime Writers' Association Award for Non-Fiction, and Jill Dando (2001). Brian Cathcart lives in North London.

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Brian Cathcart
Published by Penguin Books Ltd (2005)
ISBN 10: 0140279067 ISBN 13: 9780140279061
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