Skip to main content

Berkeley and the Bomb

ISSUE:  Summer 2015

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence  and the Invention that Launched the  Military-Industrial Complex. By Michael Hiltzik. Simon & Schuster, 2015. 518p. HB, $30.“Now I have an idea that you will like California and California will like you,” University of California, Berkeley, physicist Raymond Birge wrote to Yale professor Ernest Lawrence in early 1928. Lawrence, a lanky, garrulous South Dakotan, was at the time one of the country’s most promising young physicists, and Birge was eager to fill Berkeley’s grand new physics building with talent.

Birge knew that Berkeley, still a relatively obscure public university, could not offer Yale’s prestige, so he wooed Lawrence with promises of rapid advancement and generous funding: Berkeley was less constrained by tradition than its East Coast rivals, and the military contributions of its chemists and engineers during World War I had enriched it with government grants. Lawrence, who was impatient for research money and the authority to spend it, was convinced by Birge’s pitch, and he accepted Berkeley’s offer in the spring of 1928.

It was a momentous decision, not only for Lawrence and the university but also for science—and, arguably, for the rest of us. For while Lawrence would have found success at almost any institution, Berkeley was one of the few whose ambitions matched his own. Without Berkeley, and without the support of the state of California, Lawrence might not have realized his vision, and we might not be living with its profound consequences.

Lawrence would spend the rest of his career at Berkeley, winning a Nobel Prize in 1939 (the first for any public university in the United States) and leaving his name on not one but two national research laboratories (the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, on a hill overlooking the campus, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California). As the inventor of the cyclotron, at the time the world’s most powerful atom smasher, Lawrence oversaw the creation and growth of Berkeley’s Radiation Lab, in its day the nation’s greatest—and best-funded—research laboratory. The interdisciplinary, collaborative work that Lawrence encouraged at the Rad Lab transformed scientific research from a largely solo pursuit to a team effort. The laboratory’s own research, meanwhile, was essential to the creation of the atomic bomb, and Lawrence was a major figure in the Manhattan Project. After World War II, he was a key supporter of the development and testing of the hydrogen bomb.

Despite this central place in multiple histories—scientific, military, political, regional—and the international fame he relished during his lifetime, Lawrence now stands curiously offstage, his complex legacy overshadowed by better-remembered colleagues. In Big Science: Ernest Lawrence, the Cyclotron and the Birth of the Military-Industrial Complex, journalist Michael Hiltzik skillfully restores Lawrence to his lead role. But not even this accomplished biography can penetrate Lawrence’s core.

The story of Lawrence’s work begins not in South Dakota but in Britain, in the waning days of what Hiltzik calls “small science.” In 1919, in Cambridge’s renowned but sparsely appointed Cavendish Laboratory, another Ernest, the physicist Ernest Rutherford, used a volley of alpha particles—the helium nuclei emitted by radium and polonium—to split the nucleus of a nitrogen atom. It was an enormous breakthrough in scientists’ understanding of atomic structure, but its insights were frustratingly limited: Naturally occurring alpha particles were simply not powerful enough to penetrate most nuclei. “The results as a whole,” Rutherford wrote, “suggest that if alpha particles—or similar projectiles—of still greater energy were available for experiment, we might expect to break down the nucleus structure of many of the lighter atoms.” He estimated that particles charged to 10 million volts, with a machine “safely accommodated in a reasonably sized room,” would do the job. Such a particle-charging apparatus, however, was far beyond the capacity of the Cavendish, where science was done at the scale of a laboratory bench and on a gentleman’s regular schedule. “I recommend this interesting problem to the attention of my technical friends,” Rutherford wrote.

Physicists longed to better understand the atomic nucleus, and by the time Lawrence arrived at Yale to complete his doctoral work in 1924, many had tackled Rutherford’s “interesting problem.” (Three German scientists even strung a pair of steel cables between two Alpine peaks and waited for lightning to strike, a technique that produced the desired charge but killed one of the scientists.) Lawrence, the son of a South Dakota school superintendent, had grown up tinkering with cars and ham radios, and he had already gained a reputation as a skilled experimental physicist, one more likely to be found improving his gadgets than reading scientific journals. On the advice of physicist Merle Tuve, a close childhood friend, Lawrence focused his mechanical talents—and his somewhat scattered attention—on Rutherford’s problem. In 1929, newly arrived at Berkeley, he stumbled upon the beginnings of an answer.

The basic idea for Lawrence’s cyclotron came from an article in an obscure German technical journal; it’s not clear how or when he ran across it (he told one colleague that he was passing the time in a dull faculty meeting) but from all accounts, he immediately recognized its importance. From the article’s diagrams, photographs, and his smattering of German, Lawrence understood that the researchers had greatly increased the energy of atomic particles using multiple small, easily controllable electrical impulses or “kicks.” When he sketched a tube that could be used to drive positively charged particles, or protons, to a million volts, he saw that it would be impractically long. But what if he used a magnetic field to force the protons into a circular path within an airtight chamber, so that they repeatedly passed over the same electrical gap? This “proton merry-go-round,” as he would soon call it, might well be housed in Rutherford’s “reasonably sized room.” He ran back to his bachelor quarters to share his brainstorm. “I’m going to break up atoms!” he crowed. Early the next morning, still elated, he encountered a colleague’s wife on a campus path. “I’m going to be famous!” he shouted.

The first model cyclotrons, assembled by one of Lawrence’s graduate students out of metal, glass, and sealing wax, were just four inches across, small enough to hold in the palm of one’s hand. Lawrence convinced the university and the National Research Council to set aside a few hundred dollars for a larger version, and soon he was accelerating protons to nearly a million volts.

More volts required bigger cyclotrons, and bigger cyclotrons required more money. Backed by the Berkeley administration, Lawrence became a fundraising impresario, using his bluff charisma to raise first hundreds and then thousands of dollars from foundations and patrons. He recruited an army of graduate students willing to work long hours for little or no pay, convincing them to apply their diverse talents and considerable energies to his new machine. Hiltzik writes:

From this raw material, Lawrence was creating a cohesive research organization. His genial personality provided some of the glue, but so did his single-minded devotion to improving the accelerator and his receptiveness to all varieties of scientific contribution; the Rad Lab was soon populated with chemists, biologists, medical scientists and engineers in what was, for academic institutions of the time, a uniquely interdisciplinary atmosphere.

Lawrence’s hunger for bigger and better cyclotrons, in fact, blinded him to some of their scientific possibilities. Though no other lab was better equipped to create artificial radioactivity, Lawrence and his colleagues simply failed to search for it, and the Rad Lab was beaten to the Nobel-winning discovery by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie, the daughter and son-in-law of Marie Curie. Lawrence, though disappointed, later argued that had he not focused on the development of the cyclotron, artificial radioactivity would have remained an academic curiosity. Only the cyclotron, he said, provided the means to “produce these radioactive substances in enormously greater amounts.”

Most histories of the Manhattan Project, including Richard Rhodes’s classic The Making of the Atomic Bomb, focus on Robert Oppenheimer, the brooding, mumbling theoretical physicist whose leadership of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico led to the first atomic test—the shockingly successful Trinity test—in 1945. It’s easy to see why Oppenheimer is better remembered than Lawrence, his onetime close friend and collaborator: Both men were equally ambitious and arrogant, but it was Oppenheimer who agonized publicly about the implications of their work on nuclear weapons, becoming a visible (and famous) opponent of the hydrogen bomb. His moral struggle reflected the country’s, and his professional rise and fall—in 1954, after a politically motivated investigation of his loyalties, he lost his security clearance and was virtually exiled from academia—follows the arc of a classic tragedy. A chain-smoking, bohemian polymath, he was also personally compelling, part Hamlet and part Mercutio. Even as a supporting character in Big Science, he keeps threatening to rise up and steal the show.

But Lawrence was right: Without his cyclotron, and the army of researchers he assembled around it, artificial radioactivity might have remained—for better or worse—a scientific novelty. The Rad Lab cyclotron, Hiltzik writes, was far and away the “preeminent mint” for radioisotopes of all kinds. The day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Rad Lab researchers separated a microscopic quantity of uranium 235, the fissionable fuel that the US would use to destroy Hiroshima. Rad Lab cyclotroneer Glenn Seaborg discovered plutonium, which would fuel the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. Lawrence designed the bomb-grade uranium-manufacturing facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and had he not been busy at Oak Ridge, the US military would almost certainly have tapped him to run Los Alamos; he had a Nobel Prize where Oppenheimer did not, after all, and he had none of the “leftwandering” political sympathies for which he so often scolded Oppenheimer. In fact, Lawrence promised the military head of the Manhattan Project that he would take over Los Alamos if his colleague failed, a reassurance that may have clinched the Los Alamos offer for Oppenheimer.

Lawrence himself was insistently apolitical, and showed no interest in the military applications of the cyclotron until September 1939, when the British liner Athenia was sunk by a German torpedo. Lawrence’s younger brother, John, who was traveling aboard, was the very last passenger to board a lifeboat. After John’s close call, the elder Lawrence began to champion uranium fission research as part of the war effort, and devoted much of his own work to war-related projects, such as planning the uranium facility at Oak Ridge. For Lawrence, Oppenheimer, and the other scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, the initial goal was clear: to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis did. When Germany surrendered, in May 1945, the moral and ethical questions became more complex. Yet both Lawrence and Oppenheimer supported the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert later that year, and, after some hesitation, backed the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a “demonstration” of the weapon’s fearsome power.

After Oppenheimer and other scientists, horrified by the destruction in Japan, began to second-guess their decision, Lawrence grew impatient with their doubts. He responded curtly to Oppenheimer’s famous comment that “physicists have known sin”—“I have no knowledge to lose in which physics has caused me to know sin,” he snapped—and turned his attention to exploiting postwar opportunities for research dollars. His expectations for growth and funding turned “positively libidinous,” Hiltzik writes, and he planned out an enormous laboratory expansion to be funded by Berkeley, the US military, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He criticized his colleagues for “frittering away” time and energy on political projects, such as the effort to bring atomic energy under civilian control: “As the debate over the social and political implications of the bomb intensified during the first uneasy years of peace,” Hiltzik writes, “he assumed an increasingly obstinate position in favor of more weapons research and less introspection about it.”

In late 1949, after the Soviet Union conducted its own atomic test, Lawrence began to campaign enthusiastically for renewed research on the hydrogen bomb—the “Super,” as it was known at the time. Despite the opposition of Oppenheimer and many other colleagues, his efforts won him further government support for Berkeley and funding for the Radiation Lab at Livermore, an entirely new weapons lab that would become a center for research on the hydrogen bomb—and would, after his death in 1958, bear his name.

Lawrence spent most of his life in California; its university system was a major underwriter of his career, and the state shaped his work. It’s difficult to imagine the Rad Lab, with its haphazard safety practices, its bulky, improvisational engineering, and its disregard for hierarchy developing at a more traditional institution such as MIT or Harvard, or in a densely populated East Coast city. Ed Marston, the former publisher of the western environmental journal High Country News, has speculated that US nuclear-weapons development was influenced—to our great peril—by the region itself: “The West provided exactly the wrong climate in which to develop a technology that needed caution, attention to detail, and good housekeeping.” But the climate was just right for Lawrence’s vision. The region’s reflexive independence encouraged Lawrence’s breaks with scientific tradition, while the vastness of the West’s public lands created the illusion of safe nuclear testing—an illusion that would linger for decades after Lawrence’s death.

Though Big Science makes a powerful case for the depth and breadth of Lawrence’s influence, its subject is ultimately, and exasperatingly, opaque: Lawrence was not given to introspection, and was an unusually untroubled personality. Even his recollections of the Trinity test are perfunctory, and say more about others’ reactions than his own. While the moody Oppenheimer is often described as enigmatic, it is Lawrence, the cheerful midwesterner, who emerges from Big Science as the true mystery. Did his support for the hydrogen bomb reflect a sincere belief in its importance to national security, or was he simply exploiting yet another opportunity for yet another, bigger cyclotron? Was his participation in the case against Oppenheimer, and his refusal to oppose a loyalty oath for Berkeley faculty, an expression of political conviction—or reluctance to alienate his funders?

The “big science” that Lawrence pioneered has led to exhilarating scientific advances, including the discovery, in July 2012, of the long-sought Higgs Boson, a particle that may help explain some of the most stubborn puzzles in physics. The Higgs was discovered at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, a direct descendant of Lawrence’s handheld cyclotron. Built in collaboration with thousands of scientists and engineers from more than seventy-five countries, it accelerates protons inside a circular tunnel seventeen miles in circumference. It is the largest single machine in the world.

But the cost of big science—the Large Hadron Collider cost about $7 billion to build—has made it necessarily dependent on government, military, and corporate funding. With patronage comes expectations, and toward the end of his life, especially, Lawrence seems to have been almost criminally oblivious to the costs of fulfilling them.

After Lawrence’s death, the US conducted hundreds of nuclear tests, most of them in the Nevada desert. Rebecca Solnit, who wrote movingly of the effects of the testing on the land and people of the West in her book Savage Dreams, reflected: 

It changed everything: the notion of human scale—physicists had manipulated the subatomic to generate destructive power on an unimagined scale, brighter than the sun and deadly for half a million years; the possibility of morally neutral science; the nature of nature itself, with radiation’s insidious effects on genes and health. Most significantly, the bomb seemed to close a lot of the divides that had organized the Western worldview: between observer and observed, between matter and energy, between science and politics, between war and peace—after the bomb, any place could be annihilated without warning, and the nuclear powers were permanently prepared for war.

Lawrence, it seems, never closed these divides. Despite the enormous political implications of his work—and the enormous political influence he eventually exerted—he maintained the blinkered worldview of an engineer, refusing to temper ambition with conscience. By doing so, he failed to accept the ethical responsibilities of big science.

In the 1980s, Lawrence’s widow, Molly, began campaigning to have her husband’s name removed from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The laboratory was involved in the MX missile program, and she was convinced that Ernest would have been appalled by this escalation of the arms race. Ernest’s brother, John, then a regent of the University of California, disagreed emphatically with Molly’s position, and he and the other regents rejected her call for change. Lawrence’s name remains on the laboratory to this day.

Hiltzik points out that Lawrence was surely aware of the hydrogen bomb’s potential to unleash an international arms race; in fact, it was one of the main arguments that many of his colleagues made against the project. Had he lived, Hiltzik writes, he might well have supported the MX program. The more disturbing possibility, however, is that he might not have thought much about it at all. 


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.
Phudguy's picture
Phudguy · 2 years ago

"...the blinkered worldview of an engineer..."  A pointless and inaccurate characterizaton of people that we will rely upon to design and build our future.


Recommended Reading