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July 5, 2009

'The Fly in the Cathedral'


Best non-fiction book I've read this year.

By Brian Cathcart and subtitled "How a Small Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom," it's science writing at its very best, telling the story of the pioneers of nuclear physics and explaining what could be impenetrably dense subjects with clarity and sparkle.

No equations, no mathematics, no gibberish, but rather a description of what it was like at the bleeding edge of experimental and theoretical physics in the 1920s and 30s, with all the false starts, unexpected disasters, and failed conjectures that go toward construction of a successful theory.

The phrase "like a fly in the cathedral" was an analogy popular early in the 20th century to describe the relation of the atomic nucleus to the atom as a whole, a mere speck in a cavernous void or, as Rutherford described it, "a gnat in the Albert Hall."

Highly recommended.

You can read the first chapter here.

July 5, 2009 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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