James Clerk Maxwell, the Scottish physicist, does not die of cancer in 1879, aged 48. He lives for twenty-one more years, dying as the century changes. For those years, he continues as the leader of Cambridge’s Cavendish Physics Laboratory: being the greatest scientist since Newton, his combination of will and wisdom cuts decades off the British pursuit of science. The likewise brilliant Baron Rayleigh is not Maxwell’s immediate successor, but his top attack dog on all manner of practical problems.
In 1890, Rayleigh publishes a paper called “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies”; fifteen years later a Swiss patent officer called Einstein whistles reading it and wishes he’d come up with something equally profound. He never does.
The miracle year of Rayleigh and his associates sees more papers of equal profundity: not only on the conflict of Maxwellian electrodynamics and Newtonian mechanics, but also on the discovery of the element argon — not that anyone’d give Rayleigh an award for that minor discovery!
In 1896 one Alfred Nobel, a Swedish explosives magnate, dies of a stroke. He had been horrified by an event a few years earlier — a French newspaper had mistaken his brother’s death for that of the industrialist, and trumpeted that Le marchand de la mort est mort — “The merchant of death is dead!” Unwilling to have the invention of dynamite and gelignite and their military applications be what he would be remembered for, Nobel leaves 31 million Swedish kronor for a Noble Cause.
That cause is a Swedish Laboratory for Rayleigh Studies; its first head is a certain German Conrad Röntgen. Röntgen, flush with his discovery of the “Röntgen rays” only a year ago (“On a new kind of rays”, 1895), jumps at the opportunity; the University of Würzburg cannot compete with Nobel’s funding, and Röntgen has the will to move, to see the world. Also, the successes of the Cavendish Laboratory have led him to suspect that the time of the solitary genius scientist is over; he needs companions and, above all, he needs graduate students and other research assistants.
Röntgen’s first recruits for the Nobel Laboratory will be more famous in aggregate than they were for their former achievements: Marconi’s work with aetheric waves, old van der Waals’s work on gases and liquids, Planck’s work on black-body radiation, they all were works of genius, but will not compare with the Swedish synthesis of the 1910s.
And there is one more. One specific scientist comes to the Laboratory in 1896, its founding year, as a graduate student of no name, and yet will come to tower over them all. That is of course Marie Curie, formerly of xenophobic Paris and originally of Poland partitioned out of existence before her birth; Marie Curie, the most brilliant and fateful scientific mind of the coming century.
James Clerk Maxwell dies in 1900, as the century is turning. Five years later a group of people hunch over a weird contraption in the Swedish Laboratory’s basement; the lab assistants history forgets, but not the three great scientists: Röntgen, Rutherford and Curie. The atom is split, twelve years ahead schedule. There are nine years until the outbreak of the First World War.
In 1907, the galloping competition of the British and the Swedish laboratories leads to the discovery of the neutron, and into the monstrous Rutherford-Stark row over its discoverer. There is curiously much nationalism in the business considering neither laboratory has even a majority of its home nationals as its leading lights, and considering Rutherford the “Swede” is a New Zealander of long British habitation, and Stark the “Brit” an obnoxiously nationalistic German — but nationalistic stupidity is in the air in that time.
In but seven years Stark will be battered to death by a Londoner mob that now howls his praises. Rutherford will survive the war, but his employment and good relations with the Swedish Laboratory will not.
The August of 1914 is marked by two momentous events. The less significant one is the outbreak of the Great War. The more important one is the decision of one Manne Siegbahn, a young Swedish physicist, to stay in Sweden romancing his girlfriend, despite a very nice offer from the Cavendish Brits.
When the August is gone, Siegbahn is married, and — much to his surprise — very much employed, not by the University of Lund, but in the Swedish Laboratory’s vast cellars on the outskirts of Stockholm, under a dinky little ice hockey rink. Elsewhere the war rages on, and patriotism slowly gives way to a dull, resigned, hopeless kind of fear for the future.
In late 1915, just as three figures had peered into the first instance of artificial atomic fission, three again peer into a wonder in the Laboratory’s cellars: Siegbahn, Bohr, and, of course, Curie — a Swede, a Dane and the woman scorned in Paris, the woman whose homeland Prussia ate; the most fateful scientist that has ever lived.
And fateful is the word, because who would have thought that the next year the great naval battle of Jutland, the greatest naval fight of the age, would be rudely and horridly interrupted by the tremendous ignition of a Swedish scow floating nearby — that the war would be brought to a standstill as bland, quiet, Nordic diplomats most insistently informed the warring parties that His most neutral Majesty the King of Sweden would quite wish to see the war ended… unless next time the scow were in a harbor, and not merely within the view of two fleets.
For, despite all that followed after, Marie Curie of no allegiance but humanity was the one to look up from that deadly glow, and speak when another might have invoked a dead god or a fled screaming. It was she that spoke, and then went to see the King that was not the boss of her. And this is what she said: “Gentlemen, nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”