Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex

by Michael Hiltzik

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451675757
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 07/07/2015
Pages: 528
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author who has covered business, technology, and public policy for the Los Angeles Times for three decades. He currently serves as the Times’s business columnist and hosts its business blog, The Economy Hub. His books include Big Science, The New Deal, Colossus, Dealers of Lightning, and The Plot Against Social Security. Mr. Hiltzik received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for articles exposing corruption in the entertainment industry. He lives in Southern California with his wife and two children. Follow him on Twitter @HiltzikM.

Read an Excerpt

Big Science


  • On July 4, 2012, a pair of international scientific teams announced that they had discovered an elementary particle known as the Higgs boson with the help of one of the most complex research machines on earth: the Large Hadron Collider. The Higgs boson had been the target of an intensive search by physicists for nearly a half century, or since its existence had been posited in 1964 as the carrier of a field that gives mass to matter in the universe. But it took the collider to find it.

    The scheduled announcement, at the Geneva, Switzerland, headquarters of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the collider’s builder and owner, drew spectators from around the world and the highest echelons of physics. Present was Peter Higgs, eighty-three. The British physicist who had predicted the existence of the particle that bore his name stared, like every other guest, at a screen at the front of a CERN lecture hall. On it were displayed PowerPoint slides of data produced from the almost unimaginably violent collisions between beams of energized protons that the LHC experimenters had aimed at one another point-blank, hoping to coax the Higgs boson into showing itself for an infinitesimal moment within the resulting maelstrom of energy. The numbers told them, to within a convincing range of probability, that the experimenters had found the Higgs boson. When the presentation ended, there was a standing ovation for the research teams and expressions of awe for the incredible apparatus that brought them their victory.

    Everything about the Large Hadron Collider is big. Its construction, from conception to the generation of its first proton beam, took twenty-five years and cost $10 billion. Buried three hundred feet beneath the pastoral landscape on the border of France and Switzerland, the machine occupies a concrete tunnel seventeen miles in circumference. Inside the tunnel, 9,600 magnets chilled cryogenically to nearly minus 300 degrees Celsius guided the protons toward their head-on collisions at velocities approaching 99.99 percent of the speed of light.

    The collider, and the discovery announced that summer day in 2012, stood then as the ultimate expressions of Big Science: the model of industrial-scale research that has driven the great scientific projects of our time—the atomic bomb, the race to put a man on the moon, the dispatch of robotic probes beyond the confines of the solar system, investigations of the workings of nature at the microcosmic scale of subatomic particles. To this day, Big Science guides research in academia, industry, and government. It addresses gigantic questions, and therefore requires gigantic resources, including equipment operated by hundreds or thousands of professional scientists and technical experts. Its projects often cost more than what a single university can afford, or even a single country; CERN’s collider draws its financial and technical support not only from the organization’s twenty-one member states but also from more than sixty other countries and international institutions. Those are the dimensions of Big Science today. As physicist Robert R. Wilson has written, research on this scale cannot be achieved by solitary efforts: “It is almost as hard to reach the nucleus by oneself as it is to get to the moon by oneself.”

    Yet the creation of Big Science was itself a solitary effort. The birth of this new way of probing nature’s secrets can be traced to the day nearly nine decades ago in Berkeley, California, when a charming and resourceful young scientist with a talent for physics and perhaps an even greater talent for promotion pondered a new invention and declared, “I’m going to be famous!”

    His name was Ernest Orlando Lawrence. His invention would revolutionize nuclear physics, but that was only the beginning of its impact. It would transform everything about how science was conducted, in ways that still matter today. It would remake our understanding of the basic building blocks of nature. It would help win World War II. Lawrence called it the cyclotron.

    •  •  •

    The Large Hadron Collider is a direct offspring of Lawrence’s invention, though few today would recognize the family resemblance. The first cyclotron fit in the palm of Lawrence’s hand and cost less than one hundred dollars. The LHC comprises several advanced cyclotrons as well as synchrocyclotrons and other advanced accelerators designed to propel subatomic particles to unnatural velocities, all descending from the original design. Lawrence’s Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley employed about sixty scientists and a couple of dozen technicians at its peak. That seemed like a veritable army to Lawrence’s professional forebears, such as Sir Ernest Rutherford of Cambridge University’s legendary Cavendish Laboratory, who made earthshaking discoveries with two assistants, employing handmade tools—some of which could fit comfortably on his workbench—in the first decades of the twentieth century. But it would look like a paltry brigade to the two teams that announced the Higgs discovery, which numbered three thousand members each.

    Lawrence’s role as the creator of Big Science was widely acknowledged by his peers but is largely overlooked today. Yet it is worth reexamining for several reasons. One is that the instincts and ambitions that drove him in his research, along with his personal management style, gave Big Science its lasting character. But there is more: his is a compelling story of a scientific quest that spanned a period of unprecedented discovery in physics and placed him at the crossroads of science, politics, and international affairs.

    From the late 1930s on, there was scarcely a question of national scientific policy on which the views of Ernest Lawrence were not sought. As the inventor of the world’s most powerful atom smasher and leader of the nation’s greatest research laboratory, his influence expanded with the onset of World War II. By placing his personal commitment behind the Allied effort to build the atomic bomb, he saved the program from nearly certain cancellation at a crucial moment in its history. Then, after the war, it was his prestige and influence that helped launch the program to build the hydrogen bomb. The world we live in today, poised uneasily under a thermonuclear sword of Damocles, surely stands as Ernest Lawrence’s bequest, albeit an equivocal one, to modern civilization.

    •  •  •

    Lawrence knew on the day of his brainstorm in 1929 that he had happened upon an astoundingly effective new way of accelerating subatomic particles. His goal was to use them as probes to discover the structure of the nucleus, the charged kernel of protons and neutrons that accounts for most of the atom’s mass, as someone might wield a screwdriver to probe a desktop radio’s electronic innards. His cyclotron was a conceptually simple solution to the riddle of how to pump up the energies of subatomic particles—specifically protons, the nuclei of hydrogen atoms—so they could penetrate the protective electric field of the nucleus. Scientists and engineers all over the world were working on this problem. Lawrence solved it.

    Physics then was undergoing a difficult transition. The geniuses of small science, like Rutherford and Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie, the daughter and son-in-law of Marie Curie, had worked to the limit the humble tools nature had given them. With his handmade apparatuses, Rutherford had discovered the nucleus and intuited the existence of the neutron, which later would be found by his deputy, James Chadwick, in another feat of small-scale experimentation. The Joliot-Curies, working in their own modest lab, continued Marie Curie’s investigations into the mysteries of radioactivity, learning to transmute one element into another by bathing the first in radioactive emissions. Both labs relied on naturally radioactive substances such as radium and polonium to produce their invisible subatomic probes.

    Their achievements were brilliant, but they could not escape the realization that further investigations of the structure of the nucleus would require bullets that were speedier, more powerful, and more precisely aimed than the rays pulsing haphazardly from blocks of radioactive minerals. What physicists needed, in other words, were man-made projectiles. Mustering high-energy beams and training them on their targets required not equipment that could fit on a laboratory bench but machines that could barely be contained inside buildings. Rutherford and the Joliot-Curies knew that they were the last magnificent leaders of an era of hands-on science, and soon they would have to yield to a new generation.

    These physicists of the old school would contemplate the changes Lawrence wrought in their science with awe. As Maurice Goldhaber, whose eminent career spanned the heydays of small science and Big Science, recalled the transition: “The first to disintegrate a nucleus was Ernest Rutherford, and there is a picture of him holding the apparatus in his lap. I then always remember the later picture when one of the famous cyclotrons was built at Berkeley, and all of the people were sitting in the lap of the cyclotron. Roughly speaking, that gives you an idea of the change.”

    Goldhaber was not exaggerating. The cyclotron to which he referred was a behemoth housed in a building of its own erected in 1938. The machine’s enormous electromagnet weighed 220 tons and stood eleven feet high. The photograph Goldhaber mentioned did indeed depict the entire staff of Lawrence’s laboratory—twenty-seven grown men—standing or seated under its horseshoe-shaped iron span.

    •  •  •

    Ernest Lawrence’s character was a perfect match for the new era he brought into being. He was a scientific impresario of a type that had seldom been seen in the staid world of academic research, a man adept at prying patronage from millionaires, philanthropic foundations, and government agencies. His amiable Midwestern personality was as much a key to his success as his scientific genius, which married an intuitive talent for engineering to an instinctive grasp of physics. He was exceptionally good-natured, rarely given to outbursts of temper and never to expressions of profanity. (“Oh, sugar!” was his harshest expletive.) Raising large sums of money often depended on positive publicity, which journalists were always happy to deliver, provided that their stories could feature fascinating personalities and intriguing scientific quests. Ernest fulfilled both requirements. By his mid-thirties, he reigned as America’s most famous native-born scientist, his celebrity validated in November 1937 by his appearance on the cover of Time over the cover line, “He creates and destroys.” Not long after that, in 1939, would come the supreme encomium for a living scientist: the Nobel Prize.

    Lawrence upended the stereotype of the man of science as a wild-eyed mystic buried obsessively in his lonely work, isolated in a remote laboratory (typically of Gothic architecture), his creations always on the verge of blowing their maker to bits. The defining characteristic of the scientist in popular culture was unworldliness: Time had portrayed Albert Einstein as an oddball genius laboring alone in an attic behind a clanging iron door, “haggard, nervous, irritable . . . Mathematician Einstein cannot keep his bank account correctly.”

    Lawrence, by contrast, bristled with intellectual energy and physical vigor. His success eventually brought him a laboratory that was no dark Gothic castle but a modern shrine to science on a hillside above the bustling Berkeley campus of the University of California, blessed with a stunning view of San Francisco across the bay. Far from solitary, he presided over a team of energetic young scientists and graduate students—physicists, chemists, medical doctors, and engineers, all toiling and cogitating in interdisciplinary harmony—and managed millions of dollars with the assurance of a corporate executive. He embodied the muscular brashness of the New World, with its ambition, verve, ingenuity, and wealth. The progressive journalist Bruce Bliven, who normally plied his trade among cynical politicians and world-weary pundits, was disarmed by the renowned Professor Lawrence, begetter of scientific miracles, upon finding him “easy to talk to and as completely American as you could imagine.”

    •  •  •

    The term Big Science was coined by the physicist Alvin Weinberg in 1961, three years after Ernest Lawrence’s death. Weinberg surveyed the previous decades of scientific research from his vantage point as director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (which had been built to Lawrence’s specifications to produce enriched uranium for the atomic bomb) and defined the period as one that celebrated science with monuments of iron, steel, and electrical cable—towering rockets, high-energy accelerators, nuclear reactors—just as earlier civilizations had paid obeisance to their celestial gods and temporal kings with spired stone cathedrals and great pyramids.

    Only a bureaucratic style of management could keep these monuments to science functioning. In Lawrence’s Radiation Laboratory, the central apparatus, the cyclotron, was so technologically complex and operationally willful that it required full-time engineering attention. “The logistics of keeping the place going—whether this means the scientific machinery or the elaborate organization that tends the machinery—[became] an essential ingredient of the activity,” Weinberg recalled. That these grand commitments were dictated by the daunting complexity of the questions that science confronted became an article of faith among those who tended the machinery: “We simply do not know how to obtain information on the most minute structure of matter or on the grandest scale of the universe . . . without large efforts and large tools,” observed Wolfgang K. H. “Pief” Panofsky, a former physicist in Lawrence’s lab.

    The drive toward bigger and better created its own logic. Every discovery made with a cyclotron opened new vistas for physicists to explore; solving every new riddle demanded machines of even greater power. Every new discovery brought new prestige to the institution that claimed it, creating both the motivation and the opportunity for more construction, more scientists, more renown—and more fund-raising.

    What ultimately validated Big Science as a model for scientific inquiry were the two great technical achievements of the Second World War: radar and the atomic bomb. It is probable that neither could have been developed—and certain that they could not have been developed in time to affect the war’s outcome—without the interdisciplinary collaboration and virtually limitless resources that already were the hallmarks of the new paradigm. The atomic pile in which the first nuclear chain reaction was observed—a reaction crucial for the development of the plutonium bomb later dropped on Nagasaki—is commonly credited to Enrico Fermi, who conceived it and supervised its construction. But realizing Fermi’s conception called for an army of “physicists, mathematicians, chemists, instrument experts, metallurgists, biologists, and the various engineers who could translate these scientists’ findings into practice,” observed Weinberg. “The chain reactor was much more than one nuclear physicist’s experiment.”

    The changes that Lawrence’s style of research wrought in science inspired not only awe but also disquiet, as they still do today.

    Even early in Lawrence’s career, when Big Science was still in its formative stage, scientists, university presidents, and other experts were beginning to worry about its effect on the quest for knowledge and its dissemination. In 1941 Karl Compton, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and himself a physicist with a cyclotron at his disposal, lamented the “abnormal competitive element” that the scramble for money and renown had introduced into academia. As he uneasily confided to a friend, “To maintain an active program and a well-rounded staff has required more aggressive salesmanship than the scientific profession relishes.” Some scientists found the hypercompetitive, factory-floor style of research hopelessly uncongenial, and fled Big Science institutions like Berkeley for universities where Old World manners and procedures still prevailed. Others, like Panofsky, accepted that Big Science was necessary to address the big questions of physics; they trained themselves in the new system at Berkeley, and then left to spread the Big Science gospel far and wide. (Panofsky brought it to Stanford University.)

    Concerns about how Big Science might permanently alter the way scientists worked were shelved during the war, when the scientific and technical communities focused themselves on the drive to victory. With the advent of peace, however, scientists would again ponder the changes Big Science would bring. Some wondered if there would be any place left for the kind of individual inspiration that had yielded the breakthroughs of the past: “Could the theory of relativity or the Schrödinger equation have been discovered by an interdisciplinary team?” asked the Hungarian physicist Eugene Wigner. He was concerned, as were many others, that the burgeoning demands of management would take the most talented scientists out of the laboratory. The researcher who in the era of small science devoted himself purely to investigating his subject and teaching it to his students now had to juggle many other duties. He had to manage large inflows of donated capital, write grant applications, serve on committees, haunt the corridors of Congress and executive agencies in Washington to pry appropriations loose. Research leaders had to be not only scientists but also ringleaders, cheerleaders, salespersons.

    Money was abundant, but it came with strings. As the size of the grants grew, the strings tautened. During the war, the patronage of the US government naturally had been aimed toward military research and development. But even after the surrenders of Germany and Japan in 1945, the government maintained its rank as the largest single donor to American scientific institutions, and its military goals continued to dictate the efforts of academic scientists, especially in physics. World War II was followed by the Korean War, and then by the endless period of existential tension known as the Cold War. The armed services, moreover, had now become yoked to a powerful partner: industry. In the postwar period, Big Science and the “military-industrial complex” that would so unnerve President Dwight Eisenhower grew up together. The deepening incursion of industry into the academic laboratory brought pressure on scientists to be mindful of the commercial possibilities of their work. Instead of performing basic research, physicists began “spending their time searching for ways to pursue patentable ideas for economic rather than scientific reasons,” observed the historian of science Peter Galison. As a pioneer of Big Science, Ernest Lawrence would confront these pressures sooner than most of his peers, but battles over patents—not merely what was patentable but who on a Big Science team should share in the spoils—would soon become common in academia. So too would those passions that government and industry shared: for secrecy, for regimentation, for big investments to yield even bigger returns.

    It was Lawrence who had helped plant the seed of industry’s involvement in research by feeding the ambitions of his patrons with visions of how the cyclotron would serve their favored goals. For biological research institutions, he played up its capacity to produce large quantities of the artificial radioisotopes needed to comprehend the complexities of photosynthesis and to attack cancer cells. He plied industrialists with visions of the atomic nucleus as a generator of electricity that would be unimaginably cheap and almost infinitely abundant. As for those philanthropic foundations still devoted to basic research, he offered the prestige of association with projects aimed at unlocking the secrets of the natural world as its own reward. Raymond B. Fosdick, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, delivered perhaps the most concise distillation of this aspect of Big Science. “The new cyclotron is more than an instrument of research,” he stated in 1940. “It is a mighty symbol, a token of man’s hunger for knowledge, an emblem of the undiscourageable search for truth which is the noblest expression of the human spirit.” That year, the nonprofit foundation’s board had voted to grant Lawrence more than $1 million to build the most powerful cyclotron on earth.

    There was nothing cynical about Lawrence’s appeals to the interests of his financial backers. His most assiduous fund-raising efforts would have come to naught had he not been able to back up his promises with a record of genuine achievement. Berkeley’s Radiation Laboratory pioneered the new science of nuclear medicine to fight disease. Its cyclotrons often ran overtime to produce radioisotopes for researchers all over the world. Lawrence’s conviction that energy from the atom might someday heat and illuminate millions of homes and factories and send seagoing vessels around the globe was visionary, but no less heartfelt for that—and, of course, it turned out to be true.

    The successes of Big Science brought great public esteem to scientists, who became honored and admired as the men and women who had helped win the war and who served as living repositories of mankind’s impulse to learn nature’s secrets. That degree of lionization could never last, for science’s knowledge is imperfect and the public always primed for disillusionment. Scientists began to totter on their pedestals just as the projects of Big Science, growing ever bigger, threatened to consume an outsized share of the public resources needed to address more urgent social problems.

    Toward the end of the twentieth century, Big Science’s grip on the confidence of society started to ebb. Many of its achievements seemed, in retrospect, equivocal: yes, the atomic bomb won the war, but at the price of a permanent nuclear cloud hovering over the human race. The peaceful atom brought electricity, but at a much higher price than had been forecasted by its promoters—and it also brought us the disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, raising the question of whether the technology of nuclear power ever could be reliably tamed by mankind. Men walked on the moon, but after that spectacular moment, public interest in space exploration drained swiftly away. All that expense—for what?

    In the same 1961 essay in which he coined the term Big Science, Alvin Weinberg outlined the emerging doubts about its impact on research, the university, and society. He asked, quite properly, if massive expenditures to erect monuments to Big Science would suck up scarce resources and distract scientists from inquiries more relevant to the human condition: “I suspect that most Americans would prefer to belong to the society which first gave the world a cure for cancer,” he wrote, “than to the society which put the first astronaut on Mars.”

    In the United States, such doubts energized the debate in the 1980s and early 1990s over the Superconducting Super Collider, an accelerator to be located near Waxahachie, Texas, which would have been as much as three times as powerful as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The project eventually foundered on the shoals of regional and budget politics, but it had already been mortally wounded by public skepticism about its purpose. In 1993 the SSC was killed by Congress.

    •  •  •

    The Large Hadron Collider is so vast, complex, and costly that some scientists wonder whether it might mark the end of Big Science on the international level. Its discoveries raise questions about the natural world that can be answered only by bigger, more powerful colliders, in the same way that each of Lawrence’s cyclotrons established the need for the next bigger one. Like the Large Hadron Collider, the next machine, if it is to be built, will require a consortium of nations. Getting them to collaborate on a quest that to the layman seems hopelessly abstract will not be easy.

    Ernest Lawrence never expressed such misgivings. His goal was to address “the problem of studying nature,” as Robert Oppenheimer put it, and his career achieved that end. That it is left to us to deal with its implications does not diminish his achievement. But it does compel us to examine how it came about. The story begins with the towering figures of the small-science world.

  • Table of Contents

    Introduction: Creation and Destruction 1

    Part 1 The Machine

    1 A Heroic Time 15

    2 South Dakota Boy 29

    3 "I'm Going to Be Famous" 45

    4 Shims and Sealing Wax 67

    5 Oppie 89

    Part 2 The Laboratory

    6 The Deuton Affair 105

    7 The Cyclotron Republic 123

    8 John Lawrence's Mice 139

    9 Laureate 165

    10 Mr. Loomis 191

    Part 3 The Bombs

    11 "Ernest, Are You Ready?" 213

    12 The Racetrack 237

    13 Oak Ridge 259

    14 The Road to Trinity 279

    15 The Postwar Bonanza 303

    16 Oaths and Loyalties 325

    17 The Shadow of the Super 339

    18 Livermore 353

    19 The Oppenheimer Affair 375

    20 The Return of Small Science 387

    21 The "Clean Bomb" 399

    22 Element 103 415

    Epilogue: The Twilight of Big Science? 431

    Acknowledgments 445

    Bibliography 447

    Notes 453

    Index 489

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    Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
    UpstateNYReader More than 1 year ago
    Though the book’s title and sub-title would seem to focus on the development of “Big Science”, the book is also a look at the scientific career of Ernest Lawrence. Having spent a third of my life in the shadow of Berkeley, Stanford, Livermore, etc., I was well aware of many of the places in which the book is set - including having spent various amounts of time during High School and College at some of the locals mentioned in the 30+ years covered by the book. I remember looking across a field that lay near my house, seeing a huge water tower that, to my 7 or 8 year old mind, looked much like the nuclear bombs that were being exploded as tests on isolated islands or in the nearby Nevada desert. The sites mentioned, included not only California, but such diverse locations known for housing various portions of the Manhattan Project: Los Alamos, the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge, Hanford, Argonne, etc. Each played a role in producing the first atomic bombs, the first hydrogen bombs, and, eventually, the first thermonuclear bombs. Along with places, we meet the people (Lawerence, Teller, Oppenheimer, etc.) who fashioned these implements of destruction - whether they come from the sciences, engineering, or politics. We see how relationships played a key role in the development of these new weapons. We also get a glimpse of the technology and the path it took toward using atomic energy - both as a weapon and as a tool to assist mankind in its own growth. The book’s science is not overwhelming, but provides enough details for the layman to appreciate the journey much of science took in the midst of the 20th century. There is also, as hinted at in the sub-title, a strong emphasis on the growth of the merging of the military, industrial, political, and academic research to accomplish projects which were larger than could be understood by a single person. At times the pieces coming together were so big and so diverse that it was difficult for the reader to track the players in the game at any given time. Though physics was the least interesting of the sciences to this reader, Hiltzik manages to present a story that held this reader’s attention. The book is recommended for anyone seeking to understand the nuclear politics that defined many of the years preceding the 21st century. ______________ This review is based on a free electronic copy provided by the publisher for the purpose of creating this review. The opinions expressed are my own.