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The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom
BRIAN CATHCART

The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom by Brian Cathcart
18 reviews (2005) (320p)
ALA Notable Books - Nonfiction Finalist

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Book Description
"Cathcart tells this exhilarating story with both verve and precision" --The Sunday Telegraph

Re-creating the frustrations, excitements, and obsessions of 1932, the "miracle year" of British physics, Brian Cathcart reveals in rich detail the astonishing story behind the splitting of the atom. The most celebrated scientific experiment of its time, it would lead to one of mankind's most devastating inventions--the atomic bomb.

All matter is made mostly of empty space. Each of the billions of atoms that comprise it is hollow, its true mass concentrated in a tiny nucleus that, if the atom were a cathedral, would be no bigger than a fly. Discovering its existence three quarters of a century ago was Lord Rutherford's greatest scientific achievement, but even he caught only a glimpse. Almost at the point of despair, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, two young researchers in a grubby basement room at the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, grappled with the challenge. Racing against their American and German counterparts-a colorful cast of Nobel Prize winners--they would change everything. With paper-and-pencil calculations, a handmade apparatus, the odd lump of plasticine, and some revolutionary physics, Cockroft and Walton raised the curtain on the atomic age.

The Fly in the Cathedral is a riveting and erudite narrative inspired by the dreams that lead the last true gentlemen scientists to the very essence of the universe: the heart of matter.


Amazon.com Review
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


Brian Cathcart Award Stats
Major Prize* Nominations 1  
Unique Books Nominated for a Major Prize* 1  
Pulitzer Prize Wins 0  
Pulitzer Prize Nominations 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Wins 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominations 0  
National Book Award Wins 0  
National Book Award Nominations 0  
Man Booker Prize Wins 0  
Man Booker Prize Nominations 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Wins 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Nominations 0  

*Major Prize = Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, and PEN/Faulkner Award

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