Big Science Excerpt

Creation and Destruction

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 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, 83, who had predicted the existence of the particle that bore his name, and now stared like every other guest at a screen at the front of a CERN lecture hall. On it were displayed Power Point slides of data produced from the almost unimaginably violent collisions between photon beams the LHC experimenters had aimed at one another point-blank, hoping to coax the Higgs boson into showing itself within the resulting maelstrom of pure energy. The numbers told them, to within a convincing range of probabilitiy, that the experimenters had found the Higgs boson. When the presentation was over 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 25 years and cost ten billion dollars. Buried 300 feet beneath the pastoral landscape on the border of France and Switzerland, the machine occupies a concrete tunnel 17 miles in diameter. Inside the tunnel, 9,600 magnets chilled cryogenically to nearly 300 degrees below zero 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, to investigate the workings of nature at the infinitesimal scale of subatomic particles—and that to this day guides research in academia, industry, and government. Big Science addresses gigantic questions, and therefore requires giagantic arrays of 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 21 member states, but more than 60 other countries and international institutions. Those are the dimensions of Big Science today. As physicist Robert W. Wilson has written, research on this scale can not 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 invention 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 done, 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. Its influence would be felt in academia, industry and international politics. 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, which operates in a circular tunnel 17 miles in diamter, comprises several advanced cyclotrons as well as synchrocyclotrons and other advanced accelerators descending from the original design. Lawrence’s Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley employed about 60 scientists and a couple of dozen technicians at its peak; that seemed like a veritable army to Lawrence’s professional forebears, like Sir Ernest Rutherford of Cambridge’s legendary Cavendish Laboratory, who had made earthshaking discoveries with two assistants, employing hand-made tools some of which could fit comfortably on his workbench. 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 a 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 ranks as Ernest Lawrence’s most equivocal bequest 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, the goal being to use them as probes to discover the structure of the atomic nucleus, 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 facing a difficult transition. The geniuses of small science, like Ernest Rutherford, the director of Cambridge University’s legendary Cavendish Laboratory, and Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie, the daughter and son-in-law of Marie Curie, had worked to the limit the mean tools nature had given them. With handmade apparatus, 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 like 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 further would require bullets that were speedier, better-focused, 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 for housed in a 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–27 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, adept at prying patronage from millionaires, philanthropic foundations, and government agencies with even greater sums at their disposal. 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 an individual of exceptional good nature, given rarely to outbursts of temper and never to expressions of profanity. (“Oh, sugar!” was his harshest expletive.) The raising of large sums of money often depended on positive publicity, which journalists were always happy to deliver, provided their stories could feature fascinating personalities and intriguing scientific quests. He fulfilled both requirements. By his mid-thirties, Lawrence 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 tagline, “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 laboratory was no dark Gothic castle but a modern shrine to science on a hillside overlooking the bustling Berkeley campus and blessed with a stunning view of San Francisco across the bay. Far from solitary, he presided over an 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 in accounts with the assurance of a corporate executive. He represented the muscular brashness of the New World, its ambition, verve, ingenuity, and wealth. The progressive journalist Bruce Liven, 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 by erecting monuments to it in 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 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; every new riddle posed needed machines of even greater power to answer. 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 fundraising.

What would ultimately validate 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 that 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 realzing 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 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, MIT President Karl Compton, himself a physicist with a cyclotron at his command, lamented the “abnormal competitive element” 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 other 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, then left to spread the Big Science gospel far and wide. (Panofsky brought it to Stanford.)

Concerns about how Big Science might permanently alter the way scientists did their work were shelved during the war, when the scientific and technical community focused 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 yielded the breakthroughs of the past: “Could the theory of relativity or the Schrodinger 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 funding appropriations loose. Research leaders had to be not only scientists but ringleaders, cheerleaders, salespersons.

Money was copious, but it came with strings. As the size of the grants grew, the strings tautened. During the war, the patronage of the U.S. government naturally had been aimed toward military research and development; but even after the surrenders of Germany and Japan 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 Two was followed by the Korean War, after all, 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 so unnerved 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 large Big Science team should share in the spoils—would soon become common everywhere in academia. So, too would become 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 in large quantities the artificial radioisotopes needed to unlock the secrets 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, the Rockefeller Foundation’s president, 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, Fosdick’s board had voted to grant Lawrence more than one million dollars 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 fundraising 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 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 swiftly drained 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 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. While the SSC was still under active consideration by Congress, physicist Steven Weinberg, one of its supporters, appeared on a radio program with a congressman who maintained that the country had other “priorities.” Weinberg explained that the SSC would help us learn the laws of nature. He asked, Doesn’t that deserve a high priority?

“I remember every word of his answer,” Weinberg wrote later. “It was ‘no.’”  In 1993 Congress killed the SSC.

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 only be answered 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.