This is going to be short, badly written and poorly thought out (I know, other than the short part, you’re thinking where’s the difference?). Why? Because I am tired, tired, and tired. And this is all a terrible shame, because I really quite enjoyed A Fly in the Cathedral, by Brian Cathcart.
Set in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge from the late 1920s to 1932, physics’ annus mirabilis, Cathcart’s book tells the story of the race to crack the nucleus of an atom. This became known in the popular press (and thus by me as well) as “splitting the atom,” but that was inaccurate—atoms had been broken, split, shattered and generally kicked around plenty of times in an attempt to understand what was really inside them. The nucleus--the small solid fly in the vast cathedral that is the shell of the atom--was the real mystery.
The Cavendish was run at this time by the imposing Sir Ernest Rutherford, who comes off in the book as sometimes imperious and sometimes set in his ways—he was an experimentalist through and through with little patience for theorists, and old-fashioned in his ideas about what his young physicists needed to do their work. He would say that every experiment should be done with equipment that could be made at a workbench (this included blowing their own glass for tubes and such), boasting that he’d be able to carry on experiments by himself in Antarctica. However, he was always curious and was willing to do anything to help those whose work he believed in. If someone needed equipment that they couldn’t make themselves, he’d find a way to get it for them. Although he usually had a hard and fast rule about shutting down the lab at 6 pm, if something extraordinary was going on, he’d let them stay and work. Probably most importantly, he would go to all lengths to help find grants, scholarships, or any other sources of money necessary to keep the typically impoverished graduate students at the lab.
Ernest Watson, one of the nucleus attackers was one of those poor grad students, always on the verge of running out of money and having to go leave the lab. He was seemingly an odd choice to join Cavendish, having concentrated as an undergrad on hydrodynamics. But he became fascinated by the idea of working with the atom and worked his way into Cavendish. Watson was quiet and religious; he had the social skills you would expect in the popular stereotype of a scientist. Cathcart tells the story of his agonizingly slow courtship of the girl he would eventually marry, and how it took him seemingly years to reach a point where he felt comfortable enough to sign his letters with just his first name. As a physicist, though, he had great ideas, was a careful thinker, and a good writer.
John Cockcroft, the man who became Watson’s partner in the experiment, was quite different. He was older. He had worked for a big London engineering firm, was married and had a nice house, unlike the young Watson who lived in miserably bare student lodgings. He was one of those managerial/organizer types, you know, the kind who is always elected president of this society, chosen to run this project, asked to design a plan for something else. That’s not to say he didn’t have good ideas, but he seemed to be more the person who’d come up with the practical solution for fixing an apparatus than the one who’d say what if… and take the great leap.
The race to split the nucleus wasn’t confined to the Cavendish, though. Russian physicist, George Gamow, for whom the word fun-loving seems to be a remarkably weak description, had laid out the theories for how to do it. After that it became a matter of who would construct the best apparatus, a high-speed particle collider, to do this. Cockcroft and Watson worked on this for a few years, trying to find the best materials, best sizes, best sources of electricity, all the while hearing reports of other similar projects going on in various American labs. Finally, Rutherford had to come in and tell them to just get on with it. Not only did they then do it, but they discovered that they had actually been successful with a previous apparatus a few years ago; they had just been looking for the wrong result and didn’t see the eventual answer was right there.
One of the things that this book impresses upon you is how difficult it was to build all these things that had never been built before and how hard it was to get these disparate parts to hang together. They had to make glass cylinders the right size and had to seal off different pieces of this and that with any kind of material that would hold up under the pressure—sealing wax, plasticine, an oil-based paste. Cockcroft’s connections at his former engineering firm often saved the day, giving them access to things that weren’t out on the market yet, or having pieces designed for them.
Vacuuming the air out of tubes and making sure there were no particles of anything left on the inside was a slow process; finding and fixing leaks could take days. Putting together transformers to create the right amount of electricity was its own battle. At that time (the late 1920s-early 1930s) electricity was still surprisingly not very widespread, with resolutely old-fashioned Cambridge particularly unwired. A national electrical grid wasn’t constructed until later in the decade.
Cathcart’s explanations, though, of the pieces the physicists had to build, and how and why they needed certain amounts of electrical voltage is what makes this book so easily understandable for the nonscientist (as in yours truly). It’s hard for the science impaired (again, me) and math impaired (uh, that too) to sort through extensive equations, but I can understand what’s going on and what the physicists were trying to accomplish by following the story of what they were constructing. It doesn’t hurt either that Cathcart always describes everything simply and clearly, and is never condescending.
As always, I am doing a disservice by trying to even tell too much about this book, as Cathcart does it so much better (have I mentioned that I am an awful writer?). I would recommend it to anyone, scientist or not. An uneducated reader might not be able to set off on their own nucleus splitting adventures after reading this book, but anyone can understand the thrill of discovery, the moments of triumph that these nuclear pioneers experienced. And how, how, how I envied them. I do wish I was a scientist.
(In other news, the play opened. It runs from beginning to end without disaster ensuing. It is relatively short. All this doesn't make it good, though.)