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I look at life with detachment and distance, like a window shopper. Not only I study the window but also my own reflections in it.

The Fly In The Cathedral

Sunday, May 01, 2005 0 comments

Reading above named book, by Brian Cathcart, about "How a small group of Cambridge scientists won the race to split the atom" (Viking 2004), made me realize that reading a well written popular science book could be a very moving experience?
At the climax of the book I felt the same lump in the throat that I normally feel after seeing a Hindi Film of mushy romance.
The size of nucleus in an atom is like a "Fly in a cavernous cathedral". Please also see my earlier post about "Atom is full of Empty".
The book relates the dynamically evolving race to split the atom (transmutation is the correct term), using particle accelerators based on Hi-Voltages of the order of a million volts.
The heroes are Cockcroft and Ernst Walton. Ernest Rutherford, the Director of the Cavendish Lab comes across as a clucking hen, laying eggs of ideas to be incubated by others.
The book describes the history of nuclear physics as it unfolded mainly at Cavendish Lab, from Plum-Pudding model onwards. It opens with a "Just a boy" Ernest Marsden discovering the rebounding alpha particles off a gold leaf, indicating a hard nucleus instead of Plum Pudding.
It highlights the crisis at the lab where Rutherford had failed to produce anything spectacular for two decades.
Numerous scientists in the continent, England, USA and Russia, people the story like a Tolstoy Novel. The science of nucleus progresses like a ping-pong game between these players, in small steps, each one leading to another.
Max Born's Quantum Mechanics, Pauli's Exclusion Principle, Heisenberg Uncertainty, Schroedinger's equations, Bohr's planetary model impregnate each other iteratively. The thing that set the cat among the pigeons was George Gamow's application of shroedinger's equations, to Nucleus, showing alpha particle's chances of invading a nucleus.
It then traces the work of Cockcroft and Walton that was inspired by Gamow's work. The story has twists and turns, over three years that they took to build a particle accelerator. In retrospect they missed the chance of making the discovery two years earlier and went for a two yearlong wild goose chase.
The race hots up when it is seen that Lawrence with his cyclotron in USA, Merle Tuve with Tesla Transformer and later with Vaan Der Graaf apparatus (also in USA) and a team in Berlin were also working on developing particle accelerators and were poised to pip Cavendish team at the tape.
In parallel the personal lives and romances go on in soft focus. As an aside James Chadwick at the lab discovers neutron, from the same set of results that Joliot Curie in France published. This is a shot in arm of Rutherford ending his two decades of dry run.
Finally the Cavendish team is able to fire protons at lithium and correctly interpret the resulting dots on the scintillation screen as breakup of lithium nucleus onto two helium nuclei, leaving other teams way behind. They get Noble Prize for it after 20 years.
Ah! Ah! I enjoyed it and could not put it down till the end.
I hope I have not spoiled your appetite to read this book.

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