“Such noble intentions” : Ross Fitzgerald’s review of THE BASIS OF EVERYTHING
The Basis of Everything: Rutherford, Oliphant and the Coming of the Atomic Bomb
By Andrew Ramsey. HarperCollins, 384pp, $39.99
review by PROFESSOR ROSS FITZGERALD
Probing the secrets of the universe sounds like a noble endeavour but when the result is a world armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons it makes you wonder. This book tells the compelling story of two friends, two devoted scientists born and educated at opposite ends of the British Empire, who helped bring humanity to the brink, albeit unknowingly at first. These intellectual heavyweights were Ernest Rutherford, the son of a New Zealand farmer, and Mark Oliphant, a peace-loving vegetarian from South Australia. Rutherford was born in 1871, 30 years before Oliphant, who was born in 1901 — the year of Australia’s Federation. Both were destined for great achievements, some of which came with dire consequences.
Before the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the US and well before the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was, as Andrew Ramsey so purely puts it, “the 20th century’s great scientific quest to fathom the secrets of the atom”. In the prescient words of Rutherford: “When we have found how the nucleus of atoms is built up we shall have found the greatest secret of all … We shall have found the basis of everything — of the Earth we walk on, of the air we breathe, of the sunshine, of our physical body itself, of everything in the world.”
Ramsey’s beautifully produced, well researched and finely illustrated book in particular centres on the inter-war years in Great Britain. In doing so, it scans the windswept topography of north Wales and the industrial city of Birmingham, where Oliphant worked for many years after Rutherford’s death. And we go behind the ivy-clad walls of Cambridge University’s famous Cavendish Laboratory. Hence it is revealing that Ramsey signals out for praise the help of Dr Robert Whitworth, a retired member of the University of Birmingham’s physics staff and overseer of the department’s historical collection, and Professor Malcolm Longair, former head of the Cavendish Laboratory and now its historical curator.
Both Whitworth and Longair have been extremely generous with their time and insights. In terms of Australia, Ramsey is especially grateful to Monica Oliphant for welcoming him into her home and recounting vivid memories of her esteemed father-in-law, who governed South Australia from 1971-76.
The enduring partnership of the Nobel prize-winning Rutherford and the much younger Oliphant began when they first met briefly in 1925 at the University of Adelaide’s modest physics department. Their collaboration flourished at Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory. There they worked on numerous atomic investigations, which, as Ramsey writes, would ultimately yield “unimaginable breakthroughs, including television, computers, smartphones, wireless technology, satellite tracking, cancer treatments, medical imaging and the internet”.
But while both men shared a devotion to pure science, through the force of circumstance their path-breaking work became instrumental in the creation of the atomic bomb and the arsenal of nuclear weaponry that continues to plague our planet. Oliphant in particular found himself helping to prosecute a potential nuclear conflict. The possibility of this horrified him and his great mentor Rutherford, who had died unexpectedly in 1937 at the age of 66.
After World War II and in particular in the mid-1950s when he was back in Australia, Oliphant was a staunch advocate of the peaceful uses of atomic energy. He later confided that, personally and professionally, the decade the two kindred souls spent together at the Cavendish from 1927 was the happiest and most fulfilling time of his life. This was “because of the whole spirit of the place, the attitude of Rutherford and his friendship and the fact that one was discovering, every day, new things about nature”.
As Ramsey explains, the journey of these Nobel prize-winning scientists “carried them from the distant Antipodes to the heart of matter, from the coal-cloaked Welsh valleys of Snowdonia (where their families went together on holidays) to the golden age of physics”.
Rutherford and Oliphant, who died in 2000, aged 98, were remarkable men who “found each other at a most extraordinary time, and gave their gifts, without reservation, to their beloved science. The world remains forever changed by their partnership”.
Their public demonstration of atoms splitting was the culmination of the pair’s collaborative work, and a high point of Oliphant’s Cavendish career.
There are some arresting photographs in the book including one of the Cavendish Laboratory team in 1932 that features nine eventual Nobel prize winners, and another of Rutherford with Albert Einstein taken in 1933 when the New Zealand-schooled polymath addressed a crowd of dignitaries at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
The most poignant and ironic photo is a stark picture of the shattered remains of Hiroshima after the bombing of the Japanese city in August 1945. As Ramsey writes: “Oliphant was forever troubled by the impact of the weapon he helped create, and argued that it should never have been deployed against civilian populations.” Which to some pacifists and peaceniks may have been a bit late coming from a man who helped make that terrible reality possible.
That being said, the only weakness in Ramsey’s otherwise excellent book is the lack of an index — which makes negotiating the text somewhat difficult.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 41 books.
The Weekend Australian, January 25-26, 2020, Review, Books p 22.