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Atom - A fascinating scientific history
on 21 November 2010
I only recently saw a rerun of the BBC television series on 'Atom' which was presented by Jim Al-Khalili. I have seen his other series on Chemistry and I thought both were excellent. I cannot understand why the BBC has not released Atom as a DVD.
On the book Atom, it is worth pointing out that this is written by the science writer Piers Bizony, with Jim Al-Khalili simply providing a Forward and being a sounding board for the author.
That said, this is a very readable and informative introduction to a number of issues (but not all) presented in the television series. If you want to study details about the physics of atoms, radiation and its associated theories, then pick up a text book on the subject. Neither the television series nor this book are trying to go into that level of depth. Instead, they offer an historical overview about how human understanding of the atom has developed through time, complete with an insight into most of the key personalities along the way.
The prose is not so simplistic as to become superficial about the science. My sense is that this book is best described as a history of scientific ideas, where the ideas are explained in an understandable manner for the non-scientist. The key characters in this story play out their roles against the evolving backdrop of political change: the relative innocence of the Edwardian era is replaced by a growing realisation that after 1932 the atom truly holds the kind of power spoken about by Einstein in his famous equation e=mc2. The rise of the Nazis in Germany and fascism in Italy sees a host of scientists leave Europe's shores for the USA, where their knowledge is put to work on the Manhatten Project. The arms race is on to build the atom bomb before the Nazis. At this point in the story the book focuses more on the political situation than the specific science, but its shared reflections from scientists on both sides show that memories are selective, especially when political expediency is at work.
The political dimension continues as the book takes us into the paranoia of the Cold War between the West and Soviet Union with nuclear physicists becoming valuable pawns in the high-stakes game. Again, reflections by scientists from this period and their treatment by the various political system is interesting. As the clouds of McCarthy's witch-hunts are destroyed by the journalist's Ed Murrow's exposure of the man on television to a naive American audience the book returns more to the science.