Before the Manhattan Project, before nuclear warfare and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was the twentieth century’s great scientific quest to fathom the secrets of the atom. It was through that search for the inner workings of matter that a unique friendship was forged, a partnership that defied academic orthodoxy and altered the course of history.
Centred on the inter-war years – within the ivy clad walls of Cambridge University’s famed Cavendish Laboratory, amid the windswept valleys of north Wales, and in the industrial heartland of Birmingham – The Basis of Everything is the story of the coming of the atomic bomb, and how the unlikely union of two scientists – Ernest Rutherford, the son of a New Zealand farmer, and Mark Oliphant, a peace-loving vegetarian from a tiny Australian hills village – would change the world.
The story that bonds Ernest Rutherford and Mark Oliphant is as extraordinary as it is unlikely. They were kindred souls, schooled and steeped in the furthest frontiers of Britain’s empire, whose restless intellect and tireless conviction fused in the crucible of discovery at Cambridge University’s celebrated Cavendish Laboratory, at a time when nature’s deepest secrets were being revealed. Their brilliance illuminated the sub-atomic recesses of the natural world and, as a direct result, set loose the power of nuclear fusion.
It was a heartfelt, enduring partnership, born at the University of Adelaide’s modest physics department and then flourishing further in the confines of the Cavendish before ultimately driving the famed Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first nuclear weapons, unleashed to such devastating effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Rutherford and Oliphant were men with a shared devotion to pure science, who, through circumstance and necessity, found themselves betrayed as instruments of wars they detested but were duty-bound to prosecute. Consequently, their influence was pivotal in the last great global conflict the world witnessed and in engendering the thermonuclear threat that has held the planet hostage ever since. Yet their pioneering work also lives on in a vast array of innovations seeded by nuclear physics, from radiocarbon dating and TV screens to life-saving diagnostic-imaging devices.