Ernest O. Lawrence: the man who shaped Big Science

Ernest O. Lawrence examining the 37-1/2-inch Cyclotron with the lid removed in 1935. Photo: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Ernest O. Lawrence examining the 37-1/2-inch cyclotron with the lid removed in 1935. Photo: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Throughout the 20th century, Berkeley has been a breeding ground of invention. Even before World War I, there was August Vollmer, who served as police chief from 1909 to 1931 and was widely regarded for transforming police work from thuggery to a modern profession.

Over the years since then, the city has been host to an outsized number of notable people who have made world-class contributions to science, industry, journalism, the arts, the military, and innumerable other fields. But none achieved impact as great as Ernest O. Lawrence, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who invented the cyclotron — the centerpiece of his scientific work and the building-block of Berkeley physics — and played a critical (albeit questionable) role in developing the atomic and thermonuclear bombs.

The Lawrence Berkeley Lab at night. Photo: LBL
The Lawrence Berkeley Lab at night. The domed building was built in 1942 to house Lawrence’s 184-inch cyclotron. It now houses the Advanced Light Source. Photo: LBL

Today, Lawrence is best remembered locally because three institutions bear his name: Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Lawrence Livermore Lab, and the Lawrence Hall of Science. As a long-time resident of the city, I wondered idly from time to time why any individual would be memorialized so extravagantly. Now, having read Michael Hiltzik’s eye-opening biography of Lawrence, “Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex,” I fully understand.

Lawrence was much, much more than a brilliant physicist who won the first Nobel Prize in the history of UC Berkeley. He was a science administrator whose invention of the cyclotron and towering managerial talents shaped virtually single-handedly what today we know as Big Science — the collaborative work of often enormous teams of scientists, frequently across national borders, to pave new paths in understanding our lives and the universe we live in.

Working in close collaboration with Robert Gordon Sproul (President of the University of California from 1930 to 1958), Lawrence helped build UC Berkeley into a world-renowned center of learning through his drive, charisma, towering scientific reputation, and prodigious fundraising skills. (Funding for Lawrence’s laboratory often exceeded the combined total of the funds received for all other research at UC Berkeley.) It was also Lawrence who proposed his colleague and then-friend, J. Robert Oppenheimer, to manage what became known as Los Alamos, where the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed and built. He also drove the development of the facility in Tennessee that produced the U-235 fueling the Hiroshima bomb. And, more than anyone else, we have Lawrence, Edward Teller, and Lewis Strauss to thank for the H-bomb (known in their day as the “super”).

Hiltzik concludes that Lawrence “presided over a transformation of American science as profound as any change inspired purely by scientific discovery: the launch of peacetime government patronage.” However, before the Manhattan Project began to pour millions into Berkeley, Lawrence succeeded in fundraising in a broader context, assembling consortia of donors from the foundation world and academia as well as government. It’s difficult not to think of Lawrence as one of the greatest fundraisers ever.

Continue reading this review of “Big Science” on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.

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