Friday, February 23rd, 2018

Still looking for the atom


The God Particle – 7

After visits with Galileo (who Lederman calls “the Carl Sagan of 1600”), and Newton (“The force be with us”), we spend some time with John Dalton (1766-1844), who Lederman calls, “a made-for-TV movie image of a scientist. …A big day for him was a walking tour and maybe attendance at a Quaker meeting.”

But in establishing the atom as the basic unit of the chemical element, Dalton revolutionized science. In so doing, it turns out that he got a lot of things wrong. Scientists are often wrong in their hypotheses. But Dalton’s concept of the atom started a process that ended with Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) and his infamous periodic table of the elements, the only thing I almost remember from my high school chemistry class.

Then came the electric frogs we all studied in our biology classes. Thus started the history of electricity, “the stuff that appears in two or three slots in your electrical outlets, for a price.” Along came Hans Christian Oersted who created electric current in the approved manner and discovered magnetism. This led us to the ability to hold snapshots to the refrigerator door.

Scientists can be very interesting people. For example, Michael Faraday (1791-1867):

It is said that he generated more biographies than Newton, Einstein, or Marilyn Monrow. Why? Partly it’s the Cinderella aspect of his career. Born into poverty, …Apprenticed to a bookbinder at the age of fourteen, he actually managed to read some of the books he bound. He thus educated himself while developing a manual dexterity that would serve him well as an experimenter. One day a client brought in a copy of the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to be bound. It had an article on electricity. Faraday read it, was hooked, and the world changed.

Also changed were men of two generations in my family. My father was a professional electrical engineer, an expert in the long-distance transmission of electrical power. Then along came Maxwell and Hertz and all the giants of electronics who captured my own imagination. I became an electronics engineer involved in high power, long- distance radio communication. Thank you, Michael and friends!

More to the point of reviewing this book, the age of the Wilson cloud chamber arrived, and at long last the atom was split. Lederman: “and we had found our first elementary particle, our first a-tom. Do you hear that giggle?” Democritus, the laughing philosopher had the last laugh.

On to learn about our author’s hero among experimentalists, Ernest Rutherford, who was quoted as saying, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Stay tuned.

Dave, plodding along the scientific time line.

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