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
NEW YORK — Twenty-five years ago, I asked Charles Bartlett, a syndicated columnist, about his old and close friend John F. Kennedy. I have seen his answer published and broadcast dozens of times these past weeks as the nation marks the anniversary of the assassination of our 35th president.
NEW YORK — It was the usual suspects taping the Charlie Rose show last Monday: a quartet of writers who had written books about the life or the presidency of John F. Kennedy — Robert Dallek, Michael Beschloss, Jeff Greenfield and me, along with Jill Abramson, the editor of The New York Times.
LOS ANGELES — The president knew. Presidents always know, but are supposed to be protected from what they saw, heard and did when the best-laid plans hit the fan.
LOS ANGELES — Perhaps those tea party guys are smarter than they look. After all, these men and women in Congress came to Washington determined to cripple big government — or even destroy it. They, 30 or 40 bent Republicans, were mad as hell at where the country is going and how it is governed. Now, with a minimum of sabotage, millions and millions of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, share their hatred of Washington.
LOS ANGELES — Several years ago, Mike Pence, then a Republican congressman from Indiana, told Andrea Mitchell that Medicare was a failure because its costs had exceeded 1965 actuarial estimates. So they have, because Americans are living longer, largely because of Medicare and Medicaid.
WASHINGTON — If the Republicans in Congress are unable to prevent the United States from paying its bills later in this month of shutdowns and deficit limits, I assume their next move will be an attempt to impeach President Obama.
LOS ANGELES — Dana Milbank of The Washington Post reported on a meeting recently at the Heritage Foundation, the very conservative "think tank" in Washington, to discuss the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.
LOS ANGELES — "It might be called the age of the genius machines, and it will be the people who work with them that will rise. One day soon we will look back and see that we have produced two nations — a fantastically successful nation, working in the technologically dynamic sectors, and everyone else. Average is over."
WASHINGTON — Syria: We're damned if we do, damned if we don't.
WASHINGTON — The power of historians and of the press is that they get to choose which events will be remembered and which fade into obscurity. Our choice concerning the events of Aug. 28, 1963, made with the help of news film, is the elevation of the performance and words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the obscuring of the fear that gripped the nation that hot and sunny day.
NEW YORK — Five years after Richard Nixon resigned as president, I did a long interview with him in his hideaway office in a downtown federal building. We were talking about the travels and writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French author of "Democracy in America." I was then seeking out the current counterparts of the Americans who talked with Tocqueville during his nine-month journey through the new and democratic United States in the 1830s.
LOS ANGELES — Fair warning: This column is about gigabytes of data collected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, focusing mainly on Gini coefficients for the 34 member nations of the OECD. The purpose of this exercise, is to try to use OECD data and analysis to determine whether life in the United States is getting better or worse by studying statistics on inequality in our nation.
LOS ANGELES — A Republican pollster named Jon Lerner, who usually works for the most conservative of his party's candidates, did a poll this month for Fwd.us, the pro-immigration lobby financed by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.
LOS ANGELES — In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, the young Frenchman traveling in the United States to research what many think is still the best book on America and Americans, was seated next to former President John Quincy Adams at a dinner in Boston. They talked:
LOS ANGELES — In the days following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began arresting, without charges, Japanese immigrants in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii who were on government lists as possible threats to national security.
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — "Give us also the right to our existence!" was a prayer that ends "The Well of Loneliness," an English lesbian novel by Radclyffe Hall, published in 1928. Tame by today's standard, the semi-autobiographical book was banned in Great Britain and had great trouble finding an American publisher.
LOS ANGELES — If you walk into a Barnes & Noble store — yes, there are actual bookstores here — you are more or less surrounded by tables and shelves marked "Beach Reading." But if you're not going to the beach anytime soon, there are three very good books farther in the back. The titles are enough to make your head hurt:
SAG HARBOR, N.Y. — In a place of honor on my office wall is a photograph of me relieving myself in the bushes alongside the field where some of us here play softball on summer Saturdays. It is, happily, taken from the back.
PARIS — An estimated (by police) 150,000 people took to the streets of the French capital last Sunday to protest "le marriage pour tous." That is "marriage for everyone," the same-sex legislation signed into law last week by President Francois Hollande. Meanwhile, in the south of the country, the Palme d'Or, the highest honor of the Cannes Film Festival, was awarded to a film called "Blue Is the Warmest Color," a long and very explicit film about a teenager's wakening lesbianism.
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."