Richard Reeves
A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford

A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford

Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton (December 15, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0393333698
ISBN-13: 978-0393333695

Richard Reeves, best known for his acclaimed trilogy on the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, moved in a different direction on November 5, 2007 with the publication of "A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford," a short biography of the physicist born on the frontier of New Zealand, in 1871, who became, along with Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, one of the most famous scientists of the "heroic age of physics." A big bluff country boy, Rutherford, director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, was teacher, guide and mentor to 11 Nobel Prizewinners, including Bohr. Using simple tabletop experiments with old copper and glass tubing, string, and sealing wax, he became the father of nuclear physics — "the second Isaac Newton", in Einstein's words — using simple experiments to upset thousand of years of science by showing the atom was not the indivisible building block of nature but was in fact mostly vacuum surrounding an extraordinarily dense nucleus held together by the most powerful force of nature.

Reeves returned to the laboratory where he learned science and energy as a young man to re-create the Rutherford 1911 "scattering" experiments that revealed the atom as we understand it today. Then 20 years later, with young assistants, he became the first man to split the atom, releasing the energy that would create nuclear power — and the atomic bomb. ...All this from a kid on the frontier who built his first bicycle of wood.

The book is published by W.W. Norton as part of the "Great Discoveries" series created by Atlas Books.


"Reeves is notable for writing first-rate presidential biographies, so writing about a physicist rivaling Michael Faraday as the greatest experimentalists seems beyond the ken. But it turns out Reeves trained as a mechanical engineer. He opens this book with his participation in a reenactment of Rutherford's celebrated experiment on the atom. That Reeves could do this in an age of city-sized particle accelerators returns readers to the hands-on,heroic era of nuclear physics a century ago...Reeves deploys his considerable writing skill in portraying Rutherford's personality. With apt detail or quotation, Reeves places Rutherford in the laboratory, at tea, and at home, capturing the full aspect of the man. Readers will feel as if the actually met Rutherford, even as they learn how his achievements founded out picture of the atom." Booklist

"Hardly a household name today, New Zealand-born scientist Ernest Rutherford was a celebrity in the early 1900s rivaling Einstein. Whereas Einstein conducted most of his experiments in his head, Rutherford (1871-1937) was an avid tabletop experimenter who won the Nobel Prize when he was only in his late 30s for his research into radioactive decay. Reeves (President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination) explores how this loud, rough-around-the-edges antipodean, who often carried chunks of radioactive material in his pocket, cracked Cambridge's snobbish elitism and became head of the university's prestigious Cavendish Laboratory. Using sealing wax and string to hitch together contraptions that would be laughed out of high school science fairs today, Rutherford discovered the structure of the atom. He also went far beyond most of his colleagues to help scientists fleeing Nazi Germany. Late in his career, Rutherford's team, using hand-me-down equipment in their cramped Cavendish quarters, beat out international competition to be the first to split the atom. Fans of scientific biographies will enjoy this detailed little portrait of one of the great figures in 20th-century physics. ... This biography does an outstanding job of capturing the excitement and almost breathless pace of physics research in the 20th century's first four decades; for those who want to read more, Reeves provides ample endnotes for each chapter." Publishers Weekly

"Reeves takes us on a tour of Rutherford's life and work that extends from New Zealand to England to Canada and back to England. Where Einstein gave us mathematical insight into the atomic world, Rutherford gave us the experiments and experimental methods that exposed it. And Reeves, for his part, sheds light on academia's rivalries and prejudices and the scientific vortices in which Rutherford often found himself. We also glimpse that amazing, almost mythological period of scientific research during the first half of the 20th century. Physics 101 not required to enjoy this introduction to another giant of the time; recommended for popular science collections." Margaret F. Dominy, Library Journal

"Unlike the theorist Einstein, Rutherford was a 'tabletop' researcher who brought into the laboratory the mechanical skills he had acquired growing up on a hardscrabble farm in New Zealand. A pioneer in a more primitive yet more romantic, even heroic, scientific era, Rutherford, says Richard Reeves, would casually 'toss bits of radioactive material in his pocket' and carry them around. Miraculously he survived this suicidal behavior - and considerable English snobbery - to become head of the prestigious Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, to win the 1908 Nobel Prize for chemistry...Reeves, best known for writing about politics, is an engineer by training, and he begins with flair by reenacting on replica apparatus Rutherford's seminal 'scattering' experiment...Reeves makes the science accessible, and his portrait of Rutherford the eccentric country cousin is rather charming." Amanda Heller, Boston Globe

"Reeves' compact biography is rich in human stories and discovery. It introduces readers to a down-to-earth man whose brilliant insights and boisterous personality made him a force of nature ...a great scientific leader, a rescuer of many important physicists fleeing the Nazis, and an active researcher until six days before his death at age 66 in 1937. To physicists reflecting on the transformation of their science in the 20th century, Rutherford ranks on a par with Einstein." Fred Bortz, Dallas Morning News

"Reeves, who trained as an engineer, jumps into the work the way Rutherford would have wanted him to. ('Get on with it!' was his frequent refrain.) Reeves begins by contacting his alma mater and convincing them to recreate the 'scattering experiment' that Rutherford used to 'see' the atom and then map out or imagine the structure we know: a tiny universe, a vacuum, with electrons orbiting a highly charged, incredibly dense nucleus so small that it was said by Rutherford to be the equivalent to a pinhead in the vastness of St. Paul's Cathedral...

"Nuclear physics can be a daunting read, especially when it is about the science of the man who said, 'In science there is only physics, the rest is stamp collecting.' But Reeves goes beyond the details of an extraordinary scientific career. Pulling excerpts from Rutherford's letters to his mother and his fiancée, and from his diaries, he shows what it was like to be a scientist in the early 20th century, working alongside Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Hans Geiger and Pierre and Marie Curie.

"He captures Rutherford the man, a great humanitarian, who campaigned for women at Cambridge to have the same rights as men. Later in life, Rutherford headed up the Academic Assistance Council, a group that found positions and housing for 1,300 'wandering scholars': the 'non-Aryan' scientists who had been dismissed from German universities and laboratories, a man who believed 'science should be international in its outlook and should have no regard to political opinion, creed or race.'" Hannah Hoag, Globe and Mail, Toronto

Richard Reeves stopped writing his syndicated column at the end of 2014 after 35 years in more than 160 newspapers and websites.

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