In popular history books about a cataclysmic event, there’s a risk the reader will be pulled too fast through the book by the inevitability of that event; as if the looming horror of it exerts a gravitational tug that overwhelms the book’s pacing.
When that cataclysmic event is the dropping of the first nuclear weapons in anger and the horrific obliteration of hundreds of thousands of lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, the author’s challenge is even greater. In The Basis of Everything, journalist Andrew Ramsey has succeeded in telling a story so detailed and compelling that even knowing where it leads does not distract from the journey.The book details the lives of two scientists – Ernest Rutherford and Mark Oliphant – whose research and collaboration not only changed the course of a global conflict, it changed human history. Their discovery of the structure of the atom led to an understanding of how atoms could be split, with a resulting release of energy that had such devastating consequences for the people of Japan. But that discovery has also since spawned a wealth of discoveries and innovations that have delivered everything from life-saving radiotherapy to quantum computers.Rutherford and Oliphant were Antipodean – Rutherford was born in New Zealand and Oliphant in South Australia – which makes their subsequent dominance of the famed Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, at a time when "colonials" were sneered at, that much more remarkable.Both came from humble beginnings, but both benefited from mothers who took a keen interest in their academic progress.Their respective journeys to Cambridge were marked by heart-stopping near-misses, when scholarship applications failed or job offers were accepted that took them further away from the scientific careers for which both were so clearly destined.But destiny had its way, the two physicists’ paths crossed, and they found themselves working together – with Rutherford the senior and Oliphant his protege – on the puzzle of what lay at the heart of the atom.Anyone who has studied high-school science will know the basics of what Rutherford and Oliphant discovered in that decade of collaboration and friendship. However, Ramsey has done what so many textbooks fail to do, which is to clearly explain how they got there. Reading the historical narrative of this pivotal scientific discovery makes the science more accessible, as it is broken down into the step-by-step, day-by-day victories and setbacks.The story is also lit up by the sheer wonder of that period of scientific history, what Ramsey describes as "the last true golden age of institutional science", when the corridors of Cavendish thronged with future Nobel prize winners, and when secure research funding and professional tenure weren’t the mythical concepts they are today.Despite this, so many of the pivotal experiments of the time were conducted using little more than scavenged hardware, plasticine and even repurposed biscuit tins. Rutherford was notorious for his thrift, arguing that "noble poverty produced more worthwhile results than pampered luxury". That attitude ultimately cost him many colleagues, including Oliphant, who left Cambridge for younger academic institutions that were investing heavily in expensive new technology such as particle accelerators.There’s the suggestion that Rutherford’s aversion to industry funding might have stemmed from his awareness of the catastrophic power his discovery could unleash, and his reluctance for it to fall into non-scientific hands.The book also explores Oliphant’s other major scientific contribution, which was to oversee the development of the radar technology that also helped turn the course of the war in the Allies’ favour. The moment of the first cavity magnetron being successfully switched on is celebrated by the lab staff lighting their cigarettes from its antenna. It was a major scientific breakthrough that enabled the Allies to detect incoming threats from far away, yet is now found in most domestic kitchens in the form of a microwave.The unleashing of nuclear devastation on Japan is the book’s climax. It marked the start of half a century of regret for Oliphant (Rutherford having died before the bomb was even developed). Credit for the scientific breakthrough that led to development of the bomb actually goes to two European scientists who had sought refuge at Cambridge and worked in Oliphant’s lab. But Oliphant made the choice to take their "five-page global death warrant" to higher powers; a decision he always justified because he believed so strongly that Hitler’s genocidal doctrine should not be allowed to succeed.But he remained forever appalled that the weapons were deployed against civilians, and even described himself as a war criminal because his research had led to such a tragic mistake.The quality of Ramsey’s research for this book is evident in the many quirky details of the two men’s lives; that Oliphant was a staunch vegetarian from a young age after seeing pigs being slaughtered, or that Rutherford used to get so lost in thought that he’d dribble. There are many fascinating and funny anecdotes throughout, such as Oliphant’s accidental electrocution that left the rubber of his shoes burned into the floor of the laboratory, or the strict social etiquette that governed the regular tea parties held by Rutherford’s wife Mary.Despite the fact both these scientific giants are long gone, and all that remains are documents and correspondence, Ramsey has succeeded in bringing them and their science to life.License this articleReviewScienceMost Viewed in Entertainment