The Fly in the Cathedral

Mysteries to be solved, theories to be toppled, an atom to be cracked. British journalist Brian Cathcart's ambitious account presses the urgency of competing international teams—the British scientists at Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge are working toward identical goals as groups in the United States and Germany—to understand the workings of the atom's nucleus. The title The Fly in the Cathedral may seem obscure. The idea is that, if one found a fly in a cathedral, one would be moved to dissect it to uncover its mysteries. In 1932 British physicists, having worked for years with little more than the equivalent of a pan of wax, pins, and a dull knife, finally cut open the atom's inner secrets.

Primarily the book chronicles the work of two future Nobel prize winners, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton. They labor unceasingly in a dingy basement laboratory with primitive equipment and little understanding of where their research will lead them. Their eventual success in dissecting the atom fulfills the decades-long dream of their mentor, physicist Ernest Rutherford, himself a Nobel laureate.

Cathcart's scientists are more than names in a textbook. He gives them context and dimension, describing their lives and loves, their disappointments and delights. While not likely a volume one would toss into the beach bag for an afternoon in the sun, this book will be a top of the “to read” pile for those who enjoy the history of science in accessible prose. There is a generous selection of photographs and diagrams to put faces to the scientists and the scientific work detailed in the book .