by Michael Hiltzik

From Boom Fall 2015, Vol 5, No 3

And what comes next

One October evening in 1981, Molly Lawrence, widow of the fabled physicist Ernest Lawrence, took to the podium at the Berkeley laboratory bearing his name to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. Listing the serendipitous circumstances and determined leadership that had put the University of California at the forefront of high-energy physics research, she asked: “What if that wonderfully inspired, dedicated, hardworking, long-suffering bunch of young people had not gravitated to Berkeley to work night and day, Sundays and holidays, for their demanding maestro?…What if the right people had not had the right ideas at the right time, the right degree of enthusiasm and persistence, at the right time and in the right place?”

The auspicious circumstances to which Molly Lawrence referred gave birth to the “Radiation Laboratory,” first in a ramshackle building due for demolition, then an expansive complex in a hillside ravine above the university with a superb view of San Francisco Bay. Her husband’s greatest legacy was not a lab, though, but a new paradigm in scientific research. It would become known as “Big Science”: a capital-intensive, large-group research method that would produce some of the most important advances in physics of the twentieth century, new diagnostic and treatment techniques in medicine, and—in a less uplifting vein—the atomic and hydrogen bombs. In the postwar period, Big Science would put humans on the moon and drive the exploration of the farthest reaches of the solar system and the infinitesimal world of subatomic particles.

And it all started in California, with Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron, a peerlessly efficient and effective atom smasher, and his partnership with another young, ambitious physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Before Lawrence’s arrival on the woodsy campus in 1928, followed by Oppenheimer a year later, no student could lay claim to a complete education in physics without having done a turn at one of Europe’s great centers of theory and research. In Göttingen, Copenhagen, or Cambridge they would sit at the feet of Max Planck, Niels Bohr, or Ernest Rutherford, absorb these masters’ knowledge, and carry it home. Soon enough, it would be to Berkeley that students would make their pilgrimages, coming from all corners of the world to learn how to smash atoms and unlock their secrets with the help of a marvelous new machine Lawrence had invented, backed up by Oppenheimer’s theoretical explanations. The old masters themselves would come, too.

Ernest Lawrence sitting at the control table of the 27-inch cyclotron taken in 1933 or 1934.

What started there still drives much of twenty-first-century science. The physics and biology labs at Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, and California’s other great institutions of learning are modern manifestations of the Big Science paradigm. The Human Genome Project was a $3 billion Big Science exercise, nurturing not only a new field of study but new industries. California’s $6 billion stem cell research program is the largest such project sponsored by any state. Research into climate change is a quintessential Big Science endeavor.

Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (operated by CERN), with which three thousand physicists discovered the elusive subatomic Higgs boson particle in 2012, is the latest iteration of the first cyclotron Ernest Lawrence built more than eight decades ago. That first device cost less than one hundred dollars and fit in the palm of his hand. Its descendant today occupies a tunnel seventeen miles in circumference, buried under the French and Swiss countryside, built at a cost of $9 billion.

The invention that made Lawrence’s name was born in 1929. Lawrence had recently joined the faculty of the University of California, which had a lot of money and beautiful facilities and now had turned to assembling a science faculty to match. Physics itself was at a crossroads. The older, departing generation, scientists like Ernest Rutherford and Marie Curie, had probed the atomic nucleus with the tools nature gave them: alpha and beta rays emitted from radioactive minerals such as radium, husbanded by the thimbleful. With those tools, that generation had figured out the structure of the atom and discovered x-rays and radioactivity. But they had gone about as far as possible. To delve deeper into the nucleus, they recognized, science would need probes of higher energies, which could only be achieved through human ingenuity. Rutherford threw down the challenge for the new generation. He called for an apparatus that could charge a probe with ten million volts, yet still be “safely accommodated in a medium-size room.”

Scientists all over the world took up his challenge. But they discovered that when you load an apparatus with ten million volts, what happens is you blow up the apparatus. Think of trying to fire a mortar shell out of a cardboard-barreled cannon. Laboratories filled up with shards of splintered glass. One team of intrepid German researchers strung a cable between two Alpine peaks to capture lightning during a thunderstorm, and they did—but the effort ended with one of them getting blasted off the mountain to his death.

Lawrence began his career at a moment when physics had hit a brick wall in its understanding of the atomic nucleus. The obstacle was galling; physicists felt as if they could peer over the wall at a misty landscape, but couldn’t get there. One night in Berkeley, Lawrence had a brainstorm that would breach the wall: what if you don’t put the voltage into the apparatus, but build it up on the probe? If you start with a proton, say, with 100 volts, and give it a 100-volt jolt, now it’s got energy of 200 volts. Another jolt, and it’s 300, and so on. But a linear accelerator designed to keep delivering these jolts via synchronized electrodes arranged in a line would have to be almost a mile in length—not exactly fitting into Rutherford’s comfortably sized room.

Then came the second part of Lawrence’s brainstorm. He knew that a charged particle crossing through a magnetic field follows a curved path. So, apply a magnetic field, and you can bend your proton into a spiral, allowing it to receive repeated jolts from a single electrode. That’s the essence of the cyclotron, reduced to its simplest terms: after enough revolutions, you’ve got a particle that now carries a million volts, ten million, even one hundred million. All you have to do is aim it at a target and let it rip. To Lawrence, the possibilities seemed limitless. (In fact, they would be limited by the effect of relativity, but that was a realization years in the future.) And it all could fit into a medium-size room—at least the first cyclotrons could.

Lawrence knew he was on to something. The next day he bounded across the Berkeley campus, buttonholing friends and colleagues to declare, “I’m going to be famous.”

Part of Lawrence’s 1932 patent application for the cyclotron.

And so he was. In the next decade, Lawrence’s invention proved to be a spectacularly useful machine. The doctoral candidates and postdocs he assembled into teams at Berkeley—exploiting their student grants to employ them without pay—discovered scores of new isotopes, including carbon-14, which made its mark as a tool for carbon dating. Other isotopes created by cyclotron bombardment became the foundation of the new science of nuclear medicine and the sources of new cures. And there were new elements heavier than uranium, which had never been seen in a natural state—element 93, named neptunium, and then 94, plutonium.

Every discovery opened new vistas, and Lawrence responded by designing new cyclotrons, each one bigger, more powerful, and much more expensive than the last. The hallmark of the Berkeley Radiation Lab in those days was a relentless drive to overcome the succession of obstacles nature placed in its path. As the British cyclotroneer John Bertram Adams would recall, “One type of machine succeeded another, and as each type reached a limiting energy…a new idea was put forward which overcame these limitations and allowed higher-energy machines to be built. The remarkable thing was that these new ideas arrived at just the opportune moment so that the research proceeded rather smoothly from one energy range to the next.”

Beyond his real scientific accomplishments, Lawrence’s personality was perfect for a country striving to emerge from the shadow of European scientific traditions. He was youthful and engaging, very different from the popular image of the mad scientist locked away alone in a Gothic lab, wild-haired, foreign, and strange. He was sober, businesslike, very down-to-earth, Midwestern. New Republic editor Bruce Bliven went to visit him at Berkeley and returned home enthralled by this energetic young man he described as simple and natural, “easy to talk to and completely American.”

In 1939 Lawrence won the Nobel Prize for the cyclotron. What fellow physicists such as Niels Bohr found striking about the award was that for the first time, the Nobel committee had honored not a discovery, but an invention—a recognition that the techniques of scientific investigation had become as important as theory—perhaps even more important.

Yet Lawrence was not merely a genius of scientific technique; he was a master of research management. When you needed to raise millions of dollars to build your apparatus, you had to have the skills of an entrepreneur, a ringmaster, a CEO. He showed that the key to raising money from university presidents, foundation boards, industrial executives, and government officials was to serve their institutional goals without compromising one’s own. To attract grants from biological and medical research institutions, he played up the cyclotron’s ability to produce artificial radioisotopes that could help unlock the secrets of photosynthesis and generate neutrons to attack cancerous tumors. Private industrialists were plied with visions of the energy to be liberated from the atomic nucleus, unimaginably cheap and almost infinitely abundant. To scientific foundations he offered the prestige of association with creative efforts to solve nature’s mysteries. Rockefeller Foundation president Raymond B. Fosdick delivered perhaps the most concise distillation of this last impulse, stating in 1940, “the new cyclotron is more than an instrument of research. 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.”

A few months earlier, Fosdick’s board had voted to grant Lawrence more than $1 million to build the most powerful cyclotron on Earth. The machine was to be completed by June 1944. It would fail to meet that deadline.

What intervened was World War II and, more specifically, the Manhattan Project. The effort to build the atomic bomb would validate the Big Science paradigm. The atomic bomb could never have been invented by a solitary physicist using handmade equipment. It required an investment of billions, the deployment of armies of scientists and technicians, laboratories built on an industrial scale. The Manhattan Project was the first great Big Science program, and it proved how powerful an approach Big Science could be—and how difficult its results might be to control.

Starting with Lawrence’s paramount role in the Manhattan Project, the University of California would become a charter participant in the government’s nuclear weapons programs, a role reflected to this day in UC’s leading role in the consortiums managing the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. At the outset, Lawrence converted his treasured new cyclotron, which was still under construction in a ravine above the Berkeley campus, into a mass spectrograph to enrich natural uranium to bomb grade by concentrating its fissionable isotope, U-235. He designed the industrial plant to manufacture the enriched product in a rural Tennessee district known as Oak Ridge—a plant that would concentrate every atom of the uranium for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. He assigned one of his young associates, Glenn Seaborg, to isolate element 94, plutonium, which became the core of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.

Robert Oppenheimer and Lawrence at Oppenheimer’s New Mexico ranch in 1931.

When General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, came around looking for someone to head up the actual designing of the bomb at the lab that became Los Alamos, Lawrence nominated Oppenheimer and helped get him the job.

The Manhattan Project also entangled the University of California, among Big Science’s other patrons, in the moral ambiguity of warfare. The scientists of that period subsumed whatever doubts they may have had beneath a sense of urgency: to develop the explosive force locked within the atomic nucleus before Hitler’s physicists could. Looking back on their work is especially complicated because the postwar age is so familiar with their consequences. We know the toll in lives from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—something that the builders of the bomb could only guess at (and they probably underestimated the figures). We know of the horrific disfigurements and long-term illnesses of those cities’ civilian residents, unlike anything experienced by any other survivors of warfare in history. We know the cloud that civilization has lived under for seventy years because of the decision to unleash the atomic nucleus’s destructive capacity. And we know that the Nazis never actually did have an atomic bomb program. The scientists who stayed behind in Germany got the physics of the bomb wrong, concluded it could never be built, and so never tried. But the Allies didn’t learn that until after the war ended.

Germany’s surrender in 1945 changed the calculus, but not the momentum, of this effort. Unlike Germany, Japan was not regarded as a potential nuclear threat and its regime was not seen as fixed on world domination. But by then, the bombs were nearly complete, and the impulse to use them to bring a quick end to the war was strong. The final pre-Hiroshima debate among scientists and military and political leaders concerned whether dropping the bombs on the unsuspecting Japanese was truly necessary—or whether doing so over an unpopulated atoll would deliver a sufficiently grim and compelling message to the Japanese regime. The record tells us that the last holdout against dropping the bombs on populated areas was Lawrence himself. He favored a demonstration, but eventually he concluded that there was still a chance that a demonstration blast could fail, and a dud that failed to communicate the power of the weapon could weaken the Allied military position and strategy for ending the war.

Image and diagram of the “Trinity” test at Alamogordo, from The Effects of Atomic Weapons, published in 1950.

Many of the scientists who developed the bomb, including Oppenheimer, would eventually reconsider their role. Even before the first bomb was dropped, some had begun thinking about how to manage the political and social implications of the technology they had helped to invent. Many would work to promote the cause of international control over nuclear technology, recognizing that what Big Science had unleashed could be managed safely only through a new kind of geopolitics. Many others would work to develop nuclear power and other peaceful technologies, perhaps in the hopes of expiating the qualms that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had brought about.

Ernest Lawrence was not among them. Introspection was not his strong suit, and when his old friend Robert Oppenheimer declared that through the atomic bomb program physicists had come to know sin, he responded, rather angrily, that nothing about his work had caused him to know sin. That was still true after the war, when he became the nation’s leading scientific promoter of the hydrogen (or thermonuclear) bomb, a weapon that many of his colleagues viewed as a genocidal device and that even the Pentagon acknowledged could never be used in a military campaign, only as a weapon of psychological terror.

Lawrence never apologized for his work on the H-bomb, either, even when he was accused of using the program to expand his own empire by building an H-bomb lab in the farm community of Livermore, California—what we now know as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. To Lawrence, both bomb programs were necessary for national security, and he never looked back.

But because he died in 1958, we don’t know what he would have made of the nuclear world Big Science helped create. His widow, Molly, thought he would have been aghast at nuclear proliferation. In the 1980s, in fact, she was so appalled at Livermore’s role in the arms race that she petitioned Congress to take her husband’s name off his lab. Congress turned her down.

The momentum created by Lawrence’s leadership of the “Rad Lab” would carry physics forward into the 1970s. Steven Weinberg, a future Nobel laureate, arrived at the Rad Lab as a postdoc in 1959 to work on the Bevatron, a new accelerator that was built to accelerate protons to energies high enough to create antiprotons—protons with a negative charge—which had never been done before. “To no one’s surprise, antiprotons were created,” Weinberg later deadpanned. But so were many other particles, which demanded the construction of yet another generation of accelerators, more energetic and of course more expensive, to break open new mysteries. The Bevatron pointed the way to accelerators too big to fit in the ravine and too costly for a single university to build. So the next-generation machines were built by academic consortiums and university-government collaborations like the ones underlying the Chicago-area Fermilab and the European government organization CERN, builder of the Large Hadron Collider.

But even during that transition, Lawrence’s excellent relationship with government research officials, born during the bomb project, ensured that Berkeley remained uniquely favored in the disbursement of government largesse. In the first peacetime years, government funding supported Berkeley’s “synchrotron,” a cyclotron based on new technology; a linear accelerator; the completion of Lawrence’s prewar cyclotron, now dubbed a synchrocyclotron; and a “hot lab” for Seaborg to continue his work on elements heavier than uranium (the “transuranics”). The physicist I. I. Rabi, the head of a rival consortium of nine Eastern universities angling for government grants, groused about the “University of California Atomic Trust.” (The rival consortium would eventually establish Brookhaven National Laboratory outside New York City.)

But within a few short years of Lawrence’s death, skeptics were questioning the scale and expense of the enterprises his methods had fostered. Among the doubters was the physicist Alvin M. Weinberg, who in 1961 coined the term “Big Science” in an article in Science magazine. Weinberg posed three fundamental questions about the new paradigm: Is it ruining science? Is it ruining the nation financially? Should the money it commands be redirected—spent on eradicating disease and other efforts aimed directly at “human well-being,” for example, rather than on “spectaculars” like space travel and particle physics?

Big Science thrived—even depended—on publicity, Weinberg observed. Discussions of the technical merits of projects were reduced to debates about how to make the biggest splash in the press. Weinberg illuminated the uneasiness already emerging about Big Science’s impact on research and the university. “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.”

Other critics spotlighted the impact of Big Science on the traditional academic ideal, which melded basic research, applied research, and teaching. Once physicists’ equipment burst the confines of the campus, this relationship began to break down. It became further fragmented by the flow of military funding during World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War. “When the machines outgrew their university environment,” John Bertram Adams told the audience at the Rad Lab’s fiftieth-anniversary symposium, “the place where experiments were carried out became separated from the place where students were taught physics.” Big Science was no longer part of the academic institution, but an institution unto itself. Experiments using billion-dollar machines had to be approved by committees, which based their decisions not only on the objective merits of the proposals but on subjective judgments of the applicants’ reputations and standing in their fields.

These questions emerged when Lawrence and his generation were no longer in a position to defend the paradigm they had pioneered. He and his cohort were scientific statesmen who drew their peacetime authority from the roles they had played during World War II. By the third decade after the war, many had passed on, including Oppenheimer (in 1967). No one in the succeeding generation commanded the respect of Congress or the White House as they had; none could claim to represent the scientific community’s unified interests as they could; none had Lawrence’s charisma or fundraising skills.

To the particle physicists who had come of age during the cyclotron era, the need for ever-more-powerful machines was an article of faith. “We simply do not know how to obtain information on the most minute structure of matter (high-energy physics) or on the grandest scale of the universe…without large efforts and large tools,” wrote Wolfgang K. H. “Pief” Panofsky?, a Rad Lab veteran who became head of Stanford University’s competing high-energy accelerator program. The projects, moreover, were all-or-nothing. “Big science has the special problem that it can’t easily be scaled down,” Steven Weinberg observed. “It does no good to build an accelerator tunnel that only goes halfway around the circle.”

But not all science was physics, and not all physics was high-energy physics. “A 20-year honeymoon for science is drawing to a close,” wrote Science magazine’s editor, Phil Abelson, a former Rad Lab researcher, in 1966.

A grand honeymoon it had been. During those twenty years, which started with Hiroshima and received a powerful booster shot from Sputnik, scientists rose to become figures of great consequence in American public life. Ernest Lawrence and his cohort were able to persuade Congress that “basic science was worth supporting for its own sake—or at any rate without inquiring too closely about its connection with practical results,” observed Don K. Price, an expert in public administration at Harvard University. Federal government spending on research and development had grown from $74 million in 1940 to $15 billion in 1965, an increase averaging nearly 20 percent per year. But the growth rate of that spending had fallen sharply. From 1950 to 1955 the annual growth rate was 28 percent; from 1961 to 1965 it was 15 percent.

This trend surely reflected the sheer impossibility of sustaining the growth rate of the war years and the immediate postwar period. But there was more to it. Big Science had allowed its past achievements to be oversold, and its promoters overpromised gains for the future. By the mid-1960s, the successes of wartime were receding into the mists of memory, and the expense of competing with Russia in the post-Sputnik era began to seem staggering. Then came Vietnam, which placed a heavy strain on government resources and raised public skepticism about the military’s patronage of basic research. Congress moved to wean academia from the mother’s milk of Pentagon funding through the 1969 Mansfield Amendment, which barred the Pentagon from spending money on any research not directly related to military needs.

The change struck at a host of Big Science university projects funded by the Defense Department’s Sputnik-era Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA—not least among them a network linking university research computers known as ARPANET, the grandparent of today’s Internet. (In recognition of the change in its mission, ARPA would be renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.) And it was especially hard on physicists, many of whom had based their career aspirations on expectations of continued government funding for Big Science. MIT physics department chairman Victor Weisskopf observed in 1972 that his university had sustained a 30 percent drop in its government support over four years and lamented the declining prospects of “a generation of people who studied physics under the stimulus of Sputnik. As kids in school they were told this was a great national emergency, that we needed scientists. So they worked hard.” Now, he said, “they are out on the street and naturally they feel cheated.”

Big Scientists tried to push back against the skepticism. They claimed that, given enough money, practical applications from basic science were just around the corner: the conquest of cancer “or heart disease, or stroke, or mental illness, or whatever,” as Harper’s editor John Fischer reported dismissively. They predicted world domination by the Russians if the U.S. effort in Big Science faltered.

What brought Big Science’s limits into sharp relief in the United States was the bitter debate over the Superconducting Super Collider in the 1980s and early 1990s. The SSC was projected to cost $6 billion over ten years. The sales pitch to Congress came straight from Lawrence’s playbook: national pride, the prospect of lifesaving discoveries, the glory of humankind’s search for nature’s fundamental truths. If America rejected the SSC, its promoters wrote, “the loss will not only be to our science but also to the broader issue of national pride and technological self-confidence.”

Yet as the SSC campaign progressed, budgetary considerations came to trump the promise of technological spin-offs, national pride, and human aspiration. Steven Weinberg came face-to-face with the challenge during an appearance on the Larry King radio show with an anti-SSC congressman. “He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities,” Weinberg recollected. “I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was ‘No.'” No mere congressman would have dared deliver such a rebuff to Ernest Lawrence in his day. In 1993, Congress killed the project.

The GRETINA gamma particle device in Building 88 of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Photograph by Roy Kaltschmidt.

Was that the death knell for Big Science in America? It remains unclear even today. After the SSC’s cancellation, the center of gravity of high-energy physics shifted to CERN and its Large Hadron Collider, which became the world’s most powerful accelerator by default. The LHC keeps thousands of physicists employed, and many Americans joined the project to identify the Higgs boson. But as has been the pattern in physics for a century, the discovery only pointed the way to more questions about fundamental particles and forces of nature—questions that might require yet bigger and more powerful machines to answer. “In the next decade,” Steven Weinberg predicted, “physicists are probably going to ask their governments for whatever new and more powerful accelerator we then think will be needed. That is going to be a very hard sell.”

In the years since the cancellation of the SSC, government’s role in funding Big Science has continued to wane. Big Science’s center of gravity has shifted to industry, whose R&D priorities are very different from those of universities, research foundations, and governments. Today, industry contributes two-thirds of all research and development funds spent in the United States. Of that, nearly two-thirds is “development”—that is, efforts to bring the results of applied research to market. Business was the source of almost all of the increases in funding reported by the National Science Foundation from 2003 through 2008.

The financial demands of Big Science feed the encroachment of commercial behavior into basic research. Lawrence struggled all his life with his patrons’ demands that he erect patent walls around his discoveries (the patent for the cyclotron was conditioned on free licenses for academic institutions). But in recent decades, scientists have been more aggressively acquiring and enforcing patents on their work. As a result, some experts say, researchers’ ability to build on each new discovery is impeded by licensing costs and financial rivalries. The line between basic research programs and commercial quests has become blurred, as in California’s own stem cell research program, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Created as a $6 billion publicly funded Big Science effort to develop cures for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and a host of other diseases via stem cell research, CIRM has shifted much of its portfolio into commercial arrangements with private companies that hope to turn any such cures into profits. Whether or how the public, which launched that program, will gain isn’t clear.

Ernest Lawrence on the hillside above 184-inch cyclotron in the 1950s.

The one aspect of Big Science that we still can be confident about, however, is that, when done right, it can feed the unquenchable human thirst to understand our natural world. As illustration, we need only consider the excitement everyone felt—not only astronomers and planetary experts but also the general public—this past summer when the New Horizons spacecraft began broadcasting photos of Pluto after its nine-year voyage to the limits of our solar system. Those extraordinary images and the accompanying data are already enhancing scientists’ understandings of planetary formation, and our origins in the universe.

None of this could have been achieved outside the paradigm that Ernest Lawrence developed, starting with his first palm-size proto-cyclotron in Berkeley more than eighty years ago. Robert Oppenheimer, whose friendship with Lawrence would crumble under the pressures of postwar nuclear politics, left a typically refined analysis of Lawrence’s contribution ten years after the latter’s death: “It wasn’t in the realm of understanding of nature, but it was in the realm of understanding the problem of studying nature.” Oppenheimer was thinking of what many of Lawrence’s colleagues regarded as his truly lasting achievement—not so much the invention of the cyclotron, but the invention of a style of conducting research in the modern world.


This essay is adapted from Michael Hiltzik’s book Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. All photographs courtesy of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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