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
SIENA, Italy — Here's a modest idea to break the gridlock, the stupidity, the meanness, the partisan lying and irresponsible ineffectiveness of modern Washington. We should consider returning to the Middle Ages.
LOS ANGELES — Just about 30 years ago, I wrote a "Reporter at Large" article for The New Yorker magazine about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living, illegally and legally, in Southern California. The Mexican and Chicano population of Los Angeles was the second-largest Mexican city in the world, behind only Mexico City itself.
LOS ANGELES — Times are tough. Do the numbers: Chief executive officers (CEOs) of the country's biggest companies experienced pay increases of a minuscule 15 percent in 2012, compared with the 28 percent their pay rose in 2011.
LOS ANGELES — A very wise man, Harvard philosopher George Santayana, said more than a hundred years ago: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
LOS ANGELES — When ATMs, the cash machines, began to appear on the outside walls of banks in the 1970s, I refused to go near them. My mother was a teller at the Trust Company of New Jersey on Journal Square in Jersey City, and I knew the machines were designed to eliminate her job.
LOS ANGELES — I thought I had said all I had to say last week about the accelerated change in American attitudes toward gay marriage and "illegal" immigration. But there are a lot of other folks out there examining the accelerated politics of the day and generally coming to the conclusion that, after years of moving right, Americans are moving left again.
LOS ANGELES — As the Supreme Court debated last week over the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 17-year-old law barring same-sex marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia noted the number of states that are permitting gays and lesbians to marry. "There has been a sea change," he said, "between now and 1996."
LOS ANGELES — If you Google "Afghanistan," you get your choice of occupiers. There's "Occupation of Afghanistan by British," "Occupation of Afghanistan by Russians" and "Occupation of Afghanistan by United States."
LOS ANGELES —- "What if they gave an election and no one came?" That's a paraphrase of a war or anti-war cry of the 1960s. More than 40 years later in Los Angeles, the nation's second city, the cliche came alive in reports of last Tuesday's municipal election, where turnout has dropped to 16 percent, half the number of people who turned out for local elections only eight years ago.
LOS ANGELES — I do have an office, at the University of Southern California, but except for actually teaching, I have been working at home for most of my life. Naturally, I'm interested in the controversy generated by Marissa Mayer, the new boss at Yahoo, when she ordered all that company's employees to report to a regular company office.
LOS ANGELES — If I were a Republican activist, I think I would give up reading political journalism for a while. I might even turn to reading history, say the history of whatever happened to the Whig Party.
LOS ANGELES — President Obama said "jobs" 47 times in his State of the Union message last Tuesday night, so we know what's on his mind.
LOS ANGELES — I was standing in line for a movie years ago on Lexington Avenue in New York, when an unmistakable voice came from near the front of the line. "Hey, Dick! Hey, Dick! It's Ed Koch!" Who else? He kept on speaking at the top of his voice — he did not have a bottom — over a couple of dozen people, asking me or telling me about some problem at City Hall or maybe complaining about the newspaper, The New York Times, of which I was then City Hall bureau chief.
LOS ANGELES — The 30th president of the United States, who was not such a bad guy, sometimes seems to be remembered only for a single quote: "The business of America is business."
LOS ANGELES —- When I saw my friend Avery Corman, the novelist, for the first time after his wife, Judy, died eight years ago, I was, of course, at a loss for words. I blurted out the first thing that came into my head: "How's your work going?"
LOS ANGELES — On Feb. 1, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially signed an order allowing Japanese-Americans to fight in the U.S. Army. Only a year earlier, the same president had signed an executive order to evacuate 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans living near the West Coast into "relocation camps" in desolate, barren areas from east of the Sierra Nevada to Arkansas.
LOS ANGELES — Is there a wave of nostalgia for the 1930? I wouldn't have thought so, at least not until the Republicans of Michigan passed the bucket of anti-union legislation last week. The procedure they used to pass "right-to-work" was pretty sneaky: no hearings, no public readings, voting by a lame-duck legislature and signature by a governor who had given the impression that such doings and law were not part of his agenda.
LOS ANGELES —- It was Yogi Berra who supposedly said, "It's very hard to predict things, especially about the future." But then he also said, "I never really said all the things I said." He even talked about politics and the presidency: "You know Texas has a lot of electrical votes."
LOS ANGELES — I did not always agree with her politics and most of her policies, but I must say that I always felt a thrill when I saw television pictures of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arriving in some capital, the name of which most Americans could not pronounce. This gigantic jet would roll to a stop and various local leaders would stand in all their military finery at the base of the stairs. The door to the big bird would swing open and out would pop what the Irish would call "this mere slip of a girl."
LOS ANGELES — The 2012 election is all over but the shouting, and the shouting this time seems extraordinarily loud and revealing of the future of American politics.
LOS ANGELES — Mike Allen, for those who don't know, is Washington's insiders' insider. Every morning, sometimes as early as 4 a.m., the Politico.com editor sends out, via e-mail, a newsletter called the Political Playbook, a heads-up for the capital's political junkies.
LOS ANGELES — It was a dark and stormy night over most of the Eastern states, and all through many houses, not a creature was stirring. Water rushed around and nasty politics were forgotten for a bit. In New Jersey, the sting-tongued Republican governor, Chris Christie, said only good words about Democratic President Barack Obama and the federal response to the hurricane invasion of his state. It seems the president called him at midnight Monday and said: "Anything you need. Just call."
WASHINGTON — Beneath his cool exterior, there is passion and a trash-talking crudeness hidden in President Obama.
LOS ANGELES — Assuming that neither man faints on the stage at their final debate on Monday, the Obama-Romney race now depends on three smoking guns rarely discussed by candidates: geography, demography, and getting out the right vote.
LOS ANGELES — For at least the last couple of decades, the Republican Party has been anti-modern, but Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, is modern, even post-modern. I don't mean that as a compliment. The man is a serial liar in a society that increasingly tolerates lying and cheating.
LOS ANGELES — Score one for Mitt Romney, at least on style. He did what he had to in the Denver debate, though truth was not his strongest suit. President Obama barely showed up, but he was, overall, a good deal more truthful, especially when he said he'd rather be home celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary.
LOS ANGELES — While President Obama was talking tough at the United Nations and being charming "eye candy" with Barbara Walters and her gang on "The View," the former prime minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, was being wise on a round of appearances on American political shows. His message: "The United States ... should sort of give up on being loved."