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
LOS ANGELES — "Democrats Worry Obama Is Helping Their Rivals" was the headline over an article last Friday in the Los Angeles Times. I think that was the one thousandth piece I have read in the last couple of months saying that the president has low approval ratings and will hurt Democratic candidates in November's Senate and House elections.
LOS ANGELES — "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest of these are, 'It might have been.'" So said John Greenleaf Whittier more than a hundred years ago.
LOS ANGELES — I could be mad at Vice President Joe Biden, who has been here for two days and tied up traffic for miles at a time. But it's hard. He's just too nice a guy, even if he talks too much — and worse, these days, tells the truth.
It is something of a cliche to quote George Santayana one more time, saying, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But for folks of my age, ignorant repetition has been a constant in our lives. And, of course, it is happening again right now.
WASHINGTON — I woke up last Thursday morning to learn that my FedEx man does not work for FedEx. Voices on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" informed me that although FedEx controls just about every minute of its drivers' days, the corporation regards them as "independent contractors." Thus, no benefits — they even have to pay for their own uniforms — and the workers can be kicked out anytime FedEx feels like it.
LOS ANGELES — Welcome to Presidency 101. What would you do if you were "the most powerful person in the world" and:
WASHINGTON — Hooray! Hooray! The wicked Congress has gone home. So to speak, since most of the members actually live right here in the capital city and environs.
LOS ANGELES — We have lived for decades, even centuries, with the economic faith that a rising tide lifts all boats. But what if it doesn't? What happens then, economically and politically?
LOS ANGELES — Last Monday, a chartered flight took 38 mothers and children, who had been held in a detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, to San Pedro Sula in Honduras. That's a tough town of drug dealers, violence and children soldiers, sometimes called "The Murder Capital of the World."
LOS ANGELES — This is a column about "Big Data" and a new way to predict the results of presidential elections for the next 20 years.
CHICAGO — I have never been much of a fan of the journalistic self-examination practiced by folks identified as "ombudsman" or "public editor." I changed my mind last Sunday, and I'll get to that in a minute.
LOS ANGELES — The most fascinating of the many theories about the fall of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary earlier this month has to do with the redistricting after the 2010 Census. He was supposed to be helped by having very politically conservative New Kent County added to the 7th Congressional District in place of more liberal precincts in the Richmond area. But the voters of New Kent, a 75 percent Republican stronghold, voted against Cantor by almost 2-to-1.
LOS ANGELES — Taking a couple of shots at President Obama over the latest round of war in Iraq, House Speaker John Boehner said last week: "This has been building for weeks."
LOS ANGELES — If today's Republican Party had been around during the Civil War, it would have tried to stop its own president, a fellow named Lincoln, from appointing Gen. Ulysses S. Grant commander of the Union Army because he drank on duty — quite a lot, apparently. And if the president was a Democrat, say Thomas Jefferson, the Republicans would be calling for hearings to find out the "real" reason he was sending Lewis and Clark into the wilderness to learn what was out there between the Mississippi and the Pacific.
LOS ANGELES — "This is the beginning of taking America back," said Shawna Cox, who had come from Kanab, Utah, one of hundreds of "patriots" supporting Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has refused to pay a million dollars in grazing fees to the Federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 85 percent of the dusty land of that state. That makes him a hero to folks like Cox, who have traveled hundreds and thousands of miles, toting their guns, to drive off U.S. Park Rangers trying to drive his cattle off federal land.
LOS ANGELES — Last Thursday was an interesting news day around here — and one that highlighted the importance of local reporting as newspapers fade away across the country.
NEW YORK — When the Constitution of the first modern democracy, the United States of America, was written, only about 10 percent of the population of the 13 states was granted the right to vote: white men who owned property.
LOS ANGELES — Sad to say, the most telling commentary on world affairs these days seems to come from comedians. The latest is Jimmy Fallon, the new "Tonight Show" host, who responded to Secretary of State John Kerry's reaction to the news that Russian soldiers were moving into Crimea:
DALLAS — Greg Abbott, a former judge and three-term attorney general of the great state of Texas, is expected to be the state's next governor. His official biography puts him on the side of God, the American way and children of all ages:
DALLAS — A few months ago, I agreed to talk at a program at the Sixth Floor Museum here, the building once called the Texas School Book Depository, the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald waited, on the sixth floor, with a rifle for the motorcade that carried President John F. Kennedy to Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963.
LOS ANGELES — Immigration is something like the weather. Everyone talks about it, but not many people really want to do anything about it.
LOS ANGELES — I took my J448 students — that's "Government and Public Affairs Reporting" at the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California — to a local Democratic club last Sunday. I wanted them to see and meet the new mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, and one of the most effective elected officials of his generation, Congressman Henry Waxman.
LOS ANGELES — I was surprised to see two long stories in last Thursday's New York Times about the same subject: cheating.
LOS ANGELES — I grew up in Jersey — Jersey City. I don't remember being west of the Delaware River until I was in college. I thought the United States was an Italian country governed by the Irish.
LOS ANGELES — It is refreshing for me to find myself in agreement with "mainstream" Republicans, beginning with House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan. I think.
LOS ANGELES — There was a cigarette commercial in the early 1960s that went, "I'm smoking more and enjoying it less." The president at the time, John F. Kennedy, going through a rough patch, was asked how he felt about one negative story after another in the nation's press. "Well," he said, "I'm reading more and enjoying it less."
LOS ANGELES — The news of the day Friday included a dispatch from Saudi Arabia reporting that 11 people were killed by drone-fired missiles in a remote corner of Yemen. The story added that five days before, three men were killed in a drone attack in another part of the country.
The International Herald Tribune is gone after more than 125 years as the American paper in France and then all over the world. Two months ago, it was renamed The International New York Times. That's a bit sad for someone like me who began at the New York Herald Tribune before it folded in 1966. Luckily, I was picked up by The Times, so my loyalties are split.
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.