A conversation with Michael Hiltzik, author of
Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex
Q: What inspired you to write about Ernest Lawrence?
MH: I’ve always been fascinated by brilliant people whose achievements and contributions to our world today are misunderstood or overlooked. As an aficionado of the history of science, I kept running into vague references to Ernest Lawrence as the “founder” of an entirely new way of doing science—the more I learned about him, the more I realized that he fit right into that category of someone who had changed our lives immeasurably, through work that had become shrouded by time.
The story of Lawrence’s life and times became richer the more I learned about it—just what a writer loves to see happen in researching a book. Not only did he invent the greatest atom smasher the world had ever seen, just at the moment when its value would be appreciated by scientists desperate for new instruments to probe the workings of the atomic nucleus, but his role in building the atomic bomb during the war, developing the hydrogen bomb after the war, and in struggling with the moral qualms physicists felt about having invented these horrific weapons of mass destruction made him a compelling subject for readers today.
Q: What does the phrase “Big Science” encompass?
MH: It’s the way science is done today—with big machines operated by armies of researchers, requiring millions, even billions of dollars in funding and consortiums of universities, even of nations. The Large Hadron Collider, a $9-billion machine that lies in a 17-mile circular tunnel under the Swiss-French border and which discovered a new subatomic particle, the Higgs boson, in 2012—that’s Big Science. (The collider is also the latest generation of the cyclotron Lawrence invented.) So were the space race and the human genome project. Their achievements could not have been made through the old paradigm of small science that prevailed before Lawrence invented his cyclotron in 1930.
Lawrence’s predecessors, brilliant scientists like Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford, made magnificent discoveries with one or two assistants and equipment that sat on their desks, but by the end of the Twenties even they recognized that more powerful tools were needed to continue their work. In my book I quote the physicist Maurice Goldhaber, whose career spanned the transition, reminiscing about the change:
“The first man to disintegrate a nucleus was Ernest Rutherford, and there is a picture of him holding the apparatus in his lap,” Goldhaber recalled. “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.” He remembered right—the picture is in the archives at Berkeley, and it shows Lawrence and 46 of his assistants sitting and standing inside the frame of the giant magnet he had built for one of his later cyclotrons.
Q: How important was the setting of Berkeley, CA to this story?
MH: One fascinating aspect of Lawrence’s story is that it’s the story of Berkeley’s evolution from a backwater of physics to the world center of research it is today. When he was first recruited from Yale, the University of California at Berkeley had money, a beautiful campus with exquisitely-equipped labs—but it lacked the leadership and the sophistication to put those advantages to work. Initially, Berkeley’s deans tried to bring in established scientific celebrities to build a physics department—Nobel winners like Niels Bohr. But soon they realized that the key was to bring in great scientists who hadn’t made their name yet, and who could build their own reputations and that of the university at the same time. At the top of their wish list was Ernest Lawrence, who was winning plaudits with his research but was stuck in a low level assistant professorship at stuffy Yale. One of his professors told Berkeley that Lawrence would bring them a Nobel Prize within ten years—and got it exactly right. Lawrence probably couldn’t have invented the cyclotron at Yale—he would have been forced to the work his superiors assigned him. At Berkeley, he could follow any research path he desired, and he, Berkeley, and the world of science reaped the benefits.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between Lawrence and Oppenheimer?
MH: In many ways, their relationship is the narrative spine of “Big Science.” It’s also one of the most complicated and ultimately sad relationships between two great scientists in history, and a relationship that defines the course of American science from the 1930s through the 1950s.
When the story begins, Lawrence and J. Robert Oppenheimer were inseparable personal friends—Lawrence named his first-born son, Robert, after “Oppie.” They were perfectly complementary as physicists: Lawrence was a brilliant experimentalist with a sometimes shaky grasp of physical theory, Oppenheimer one of the most gifted theoreticians in physics who couldn’t handle an experimental apparatus to save his life. They learned tremendously from each other—Ernest would produce some phenomenon or other in his cyclotron, and Oppenheimer would find the explanation; Oppie would conjure up a theory of quantum behavior, and Lawrence would test it in his beautiful machine.
In time, they grew apart, bitterly so. Their colleagues and friends spent as much time trying to understand what drove them apart as they had trying to understand what these two very different men—one raised in the Midwestern prairie and educated in state universities, the other in a cosmopolitan Manhattan home and educated at Harvard and in Europe.
The elements of their rift are known—they both became world-famous and developed in distinct social and intellectual circles; their politics were polar opposites; they had sharply divergent views of the H-bomb project (Lawrence was convinced it had to be built, Oppenheimer worked to kill it). But what drove Lawrence to undermine Oppenheimer during the latter’s investigation as a security risk remains something of a mystery. Their mutual friends were convinced it was something personal, and many had their own theories, but not even Oppenheimer, who outlived Ernest, ever quite figured it out.
Q: You say in your book that two great technical achievements of the Second World War – radar and the atomic bomb – are what ultimately validated “Big Science” as a model for scientific inquiry. How so?
MH: Those were the two achievements that showed that “Big Science” was not merely a model for academic research, but a necessary paradigm for practical science, too. Neither could have been invented without the expenditure of millions of dollars, the accumulated brainpower of hundreds of individual scientists, and laboratories equipped with the most elaborate apparatuses known to man. Together, they won the war, and that was widely recognized not only by government leaders and industrialists, but the public at large.
America and Europe emerged from World War II infused with the confidence that if the deployment of resources on that scale could produce these hugely important inventions—this was at the stage when building the atomic bomb was still a much-admired feat—then Big Science could achieve almost anything. That was true up to a point—Big Science was necessary to move physics and biology into their next stages—but the world would discover over the next few decades that some goals couldn’t be reached even with the application of billions of dollars and thousands of researchers.
Q: How did Lawrence help “plant the seed of industry’s involvement in research” as you claim in the book?
MH: Lawrence recognized early on that the cost of cyclotron-building was destined to outstrip the resources of universities. Even before the war, he began designing his research to meet the demands of industry, building a whole new cyclotron primarily to produce radioisotopes he knew would be needed by medical science and the biomedical industry. After the war, Lawrence’s fund-raising relied on a triumvirate of patrons—academia, government, and industry. That model produced the resources he needed, and inevitably became the standard for all Big Science.
Q: How did the successes of Lawrence and Big Science impact the public perception of scientists?
MH: During his lifetime, Ernest Lawrence was the most famous, and most respected, native-born scientist in America—the cover of Time Magazine, the first Nobel Laureate from a state university, frequent speaker on radio and witness before Congressional committees. He caught the public’s attention because he was so normal, so “American,” so unlike the stereotypical mad scientist puttering away in a Gothic laboratory. Beyond that, he was also successful. One of the striking features of Lawrence’s career is that while he promised grandiose accomplishments, he almost always delivered.
Scientists emerged from the war at their peak of public respect—their inventions had ended the war, after all, saving thousands of men from death or injury in combat. Lawrence was such a sober and levelheaded personality that he remained the symbol of American scientific know-how and achievement. The public would eventually become disillusioned with its hero scientists, but not until decades after Lawrence’s death.
Q: Alvin Weinberg, who first coined the term “Big Science” was also one of its most outspoken critics. What were his main concerns about spending?
MH: Ironically, Alvin Weinberg was one of Ernest Lawrence’s own acolytes—he became the director of the government’s Oak Ridge Laboratory, which Lawrence had helped build to produce the enriched uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb. But that job also gave him a unique vantage point from which to ponder the limits of Big Science, the term he coined in a 1961 article in Science Magazine.
Weinberg began to see that Big Science had become too big, too monumental—that big machines and big projects were being started for the sake of their bigness, not with an eye toward what society really needed. Scientists were “spending money instead of thought,” he wrote, and the quest for more money was turning scientists into promoters instead of searchers for truth. He also recognized that Big Science’s demand for resources would soon come into conflict with other demands, and that its rivals for funding might be more worthy. “I suspect that most Americans would prefer to find a cure for cancer than put the first astronaut on Mars,” he wrote, prophetically.
Q: Can you elaborate on why the debate in the 1980s and early 1990s over the Superconducting Super Collider was a set-back for Big Science?
MH: The controversy over the Superconducting Super Collider proved the physicist Alvin Weinberg right when he predicted in 1961 that Big Science would eventually have to compete with other social needs and prove its worth on its own terms.
The SSC, a $2-billion atom smasher that was to be set in the Texas prairie, came along just at the point where these questions were coming alive. Its purpose and value were clear to physicists, but difficult to explain to the layperson. In 1992, a new class of Congress arrived in Washington determined to cut spending, and the collider looked like exactly the kind of boondoggle that could be eradicated without much effect on the U.S. economy. The scientists’ postwar halo had faded, in part because some of the old promises—nuclear energy too cheap to meter, for instance, had not come to pass. Solving poverty and hunger, ending racism and disease, seemed more worthy programs to spend money than finding the next subatomic particle.
Physicist Steven Weinberg, a supporter of the SSC, recalls going on the Larry King radio show to debate an anti-SSC Congressman, who said the project didn’t fit in with national priorities. Weinberg replied that the collider would help us learn the laws of nature, and wasn’t that a high priority?
“I remember every word of his answer,” Weinberg wrote later. “It was ‘no.’”
From that point on, Big Science was going to have to find new ways to justify its existence.
Q: What role does Big Science play today, and in which areas are we most likely to see peacetime government patronage in the next ten years?
MH: The new paradigm of the new Big Science is still being developed, but there are signs of hope. The Large Hadron Collider thrilled the world when it discovered the Higgs boson, a sign that learning the laws of nature may still have a high priority after all. The public is more cognizant than ever that the greatest challenges to our existence on this planet are scientific—addressing climate change, finding alternatives to oil and gas energy, finding new ways to feed the planet, defeating viruses and other disease carriers—and that only Big Science has the capacity to meet those challenges.
Humans’ quest for fundamental knowledge about the world we live in and the universe we occupy never really disappears, and reasserts itself in cycles. Each new discovery opens the door to new inquiries, and the process remains endlessly fascinating for people in all walks of life. That’s going to keep Big Science alive.
Q: In doing your research for this book, what were you most surprised to learn?
MH: The most surprising discovery involved Lawrence’s role in the atomic bomb program, which he personally saved from extinction at a critical moment in 1942. America’s scientific policymakers doubted that a bomb could be developed in time to affect the war, were on the verge of cancelling the effort—it made no sense in wartime, after all, spending billions on an effort that wouldn’t make a difference.
Lawrence realized they were wrong—a bomb was practical, and if practical, necessary. Scientists lie Albert Einstein and other European refugees lived in mortal fear that Hitler would get the bomb first, a truly horrific prospect. Lawrence threw his own immense reputation behind the project, and saved it during a crucial meeting with FDR’s emissaries one night in Chicago. And he did so by pledging to put his own research aside and devote his every waking hour to making it happen.
His role in the effort is overshadowed today by that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, but Lawrence was by far the more important figure. He invented the method that produced all the uranium in the Hiroshima bomb and oversaw the discovery of plutonium in his Berkeley lab, the material that fueled the Nagasaki bomb.
Despite that, Lawrence also became the Manhattan Project’s moral conscience, resisting dropping the bomb on Japan until the very last.
Q: You write that Lawrence’s role in the nuclear weapons program was an equivocal one. How so?
MH: After the war, Lawrence became the most influential advocate in the scientific community for the hydrogen bomb—the “Super,” as it was known at the time, and a weapon regarded by many physicists as an immorally genocidal weapon with no military justification. Lawrence’s role as a campaigner for the H-bomb—Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which he founded, was initially established as the nation’s H-bomb lab—ruined his standing among his closest colleagues. They could rationalize building the A-bomb as an effort to end World War II and beat Hitler to the punch, but the H-bomb was something else entirely.
Without Lawrence’s support, there’s reason to doubt that America would have built the H-bomb. And the world today might be very different.