September 25, 2017

Book Review: The Fly in the Cathedral by Brian Cathcart

Fly in Cathedral

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical book about Cockcroft and Walton and the first time an atomic nucleus was split in the laboratory.  It brings to light an exciting era in science that most people only know from the lore of newspaper articles from decades ago.  This book has very broad appeal.

Most students of physics or chemistry learn something about Rutherford’s experiments that discovered the structure of the atom as a miniscule but very heavy nucleus surrounded by mostly empty space and some tiny and very lightweight electrons.  Rutherford used a radioactive substance as a natural source for alpha particles which were directed at a thin gold foil.  Most of the alpha particle passed through the foil with minimal deflection, and experimenters counted flashes of light when the particles hit a scintillating screen.

Flash forward to the search for the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva where custom designed particle beams of astounding TeV energies where protons infinitesimally close to the speed of light  are collided with each other.  In place of  human eyes and a scintillating screen is an amazing high-tech detector larger than a house, and all of the data are collected and analyzed with awesome computing power.

The story of Cockcroft and Walton at the Cavendish in Cambridge is a story of great experimental ingenuity.  Taking advantage of electricity which is newly available they generate the first synthetic particle beams.  There is a lot of work with high voltages and vacuum systems, and progress is difficult and dangerous.  The first experimentation with automated detectors begins.  Suddenly the field of nuclear physics  is alive, and immediately it is astonishing that, despite the challenges, it was at the same time easier than anticipated.

The name of the book?  That tiny nucleus in all of that empty space is like a fly in a cathedral.

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