Be­tween the wars, a big bang

A study of an amaz­ing era of progress is as lively as the minds be­hind it, says Robert Lam­bourne

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Robert Lam­bourne is pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tional physics at The Open Uni­ver­sity.

The Age of In­no­cence: Nu­clear Physics be­tween the First and Se­cond World Wars By Roger H. Stuewer Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press, 512pp, £39.99 ISBN 9780198827870 Pub­lished 26 Au­gust 2018

Don’t be put off by the un­in­for­ma­tive main ti­tle of this book (even the sub­ti­tle fails to re­veal its full range). It’s a won­der­ful book. His­to­ries of science of­ten claim to show the way that science is “re­ally” done. This one man­ages bet­ter than most by recog­nis­ing that there are many ways, and they gen­er­ally de­pend on the in­di­vid­u­als in­volved as well as their in­sti­tu­tional, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal set­tings. No mere retelling of sci­en­tific events, this is a work in which the ef­fects of an­tisemitism, hyper­in­fla­tion and mi­gra­tion sit along­side those of sci­en­tific ge­nius.

The book is well writ­ten, bril­liantly struc­tured and skil­fully paced. It is also richly il­lus­trated, with care­fully se­lected pho­tos and a few cru­cial di­a­grams. Although deeply schol­arly, its virtues make it lively and ap­proach­able. It de­serves to be en­joyed by a wide au­di­ence.

The 21 years sep­a­rat­ing the end of the Great War from the start of the Se­cond World War were a pe­riod of re­mark­able progress in nu­clear physics. The dis­cov­ery of the tiny, dense nu­cleus and the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of its cen­tral role in ev­ery atom were ear­lier achieve­ments: their chief ar­chi­tect, New Zealan­der Ernest Ruther­ford, had al­ready been awarded a No­bel prize and a knight­hood. One of the other pi­o­neers, Pol­ish-born Marie Curie, had shared two No­bel prizes and been given her own re­search in­sti­tute. The next step for them and their suc­ces­sors was the de­tailed in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the com­po­si­tion and in­ter­nal struc­ture of the nu­cleus, and the re­lated study of nu­clear de­cay and re­ac­tions that would re­veal the forces re­spon­si­ble for ra­dioac­tiv­ity.

The pe­riod be­gan with Ruther­ford’s an­nounce­ment of the first ar­ti­fi­cially in­duced trans­mu­ta­tion of el­e­ments. It ended with the un­ex­pected dis­cov­ery of nu­clear fis­sion, a new kind of nu­clear de­cay so pow­er­ful that it would en­able those who com­manded it to de­ci­sively end one war, and to dream, for a while at least, of end­ing all wars.

The com­bi­na­tion of ex­per­i­men­tal find­ings, the­o­ret­i­cal in­sights and tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments that filled those years was ex­tra­or­di­nary. It in­cluded the dis­cov­ery of the ba­sic nu­clear con­stituents (the pro­ton and the neu­tron), the re­al­i­sa­tion that nu­clear de­cay was an in­her­ently quan­tum phe­nom­e­non be­yond clas­si­cal un­der­stand­ing, and the ac­cep­tance that the mass-en­ergy equiv­a­lence of Ein­steinian rel­a­tiv­ity al­lowed nu­clei to emit elec­trons and other par­ti­cles that they had not pre­vi­ously con­tained. New tools and tech­niques were de­vel­oped. Most dra­mat­i­cally, the in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful ac­cel­er­a­tors that first split the nu­cleus in Eng­land were then rapidly im­proved in the US

– a geo­graph­i­cal shift that be­came in­creas­ingly com­mon.

Many new peo­ple were also im­por­tant, among them a se­cond gen­er­a­tion of Curies in France. One was Hans Bethe in Ger­many, au­thor of a three-part re­view ar­ti­cle of such sig­nif­i­cance that it be­came known as the Bethe bible, even be­fore he be­came bet­ter known for il­lu­mi­nat­ing the nu­clear physics of stars. An­other was Ital­ian nu­clear new­comer En­rico Fermi, a mas­ter of the­ory and ex­per­i­ment who fun­da­men­tally trans­formed the na­ture of nu­clear physics. Sev­eral would be­come No­bel lau­re­ates and many, in­clud­ing Bethe and Fermi, would con­tribute to the in­tel­lec­tual move­ment from Europe to the US. Per­haps a true end of in­no­cence, af­ter all.

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