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Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that

Launched the Military-Industrial Complex

A fascinating biography of a physicist who transformed how science is done.”
Kirkus Reviews, Starred review

Hiltzik here tells the fascinating story of how this exceptional scientist won support for his epoch-making research tool and then assembled and managed an unprecedented team of experts who used that tool to penetrate subatomic mysteries. The continuing relevance of such issues will ensure a wide readership for this biographical inquiry into their origins.”
Booklist, Starred review

In this dual history of Lawrence and the movement he single-handedly brought into being, Hiltzik… explains how Lawrence’s postwar research exceeded the budgets of universities and philanthropic foundations, necessitating government patronage… his portrait of Lawrence, who gave birth to the modern research lab through sheer force of will, is powerful .”
Publishers Weekly

Michael Hiltzik tells an epic story, one with arenas of tragedy as well as triumph, and he tells it well.”
Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian

Einstein famously formulated new theories of the universe while sitting alone in the patent office in Bern. Today, many endeavors in fundamental research require large budgets, elaborate facilities, and huge staffs. How did science become ‘Big Science’?  In this fascinating book, Michael Hiltzik gives us the inside story of this remarkable metamorphosis. This is a gripping biography of Big Science and of the people who originated it.”
Mario Livio, Astrophysicist, and author of Brilliant Blunders

20th-century science delivered a series of revolutions, none more instantaneous than the microseconds it took to explode the first atomic bomb. By framing this story—and the development of the cyclotron that made it possible—from the Lawrence/Livermore perspective rather than the Oppenheimer/Los Alamos perspective that has dominated most accounts, Michael Hiltzik sheds fresh light on the transition from small science to big science that we take for granted today. Especially timely is a fascinating account of Lawrence’s attempt to return to small science: how do you encourage a small group of scientists to produce big results, rather than the other way around?”
George Dyson, author of Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

In BIG SCIENCE: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex (Simon & Schuster; July 7, 2015; $30), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Hiltzik tells the fascinating story of how one man and one invention forever changed the course of scientific research. Hiltzik explains how science went “big,” built the bombs that helped win World War II, and became dependent on government and industry. He also sheds new light on the forgotten genius who started it all, Ernest Lawrence.

More than eighty years ago in Berkeley, California, a charming and resourceful young scientist with a talent for physics and perhaps an even greater talent for promotion pondered his new invention and declared: “I’m going to be famous!” His name was Ernest O. Lawrence. His invention, the cyclotron, 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 deepen 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 affairs. Its progeny include the atomic bomb and the space program. It was the beginning of Big Science.

Ernest Lawrence would go on to win the Nobel Prize in physics and become the confidant of presidents and leaders of industry. He was deeply involved in the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb, and influenced the decision to appoint Robert Oppenheimer as head of the bomb project in Los Alamos. Understanding the history behind the bomb and the people who created it is particularly relevant with this August marking the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, Lawrence advocated for the development of the hydrogen bomb, but also urged an end to the arms race he helped create.

Hiltzik mined personal records and research archives from across the country for this dramatic re-creation of the life and times of Ernest Lawrence, one of the most important scientists of the modern age. In the pages of BIG SCIENCE, Lawrence and his colleagues come alive in the heat of invention and discovery, fully aware of the momentous consequences of their work. Since the 1930s, the scale of scientific endeavors has grown exponentially. Machines have become larger, ambitions bolder. Lawrence’s first particle accelerator cost less than one hundred dollars and could be held in the palm of its inventor’s hand, while its descendant, the Large Hadron Collider, cost nine billion dollars and occupies an underground tunnel seventeen miles in circumference. Scientists have invented nuclear weapons, put a man on the moon, and examined nature at the subatomic scale—all through Big Science.

More than any other American scientist, Ernest Lawrence made the world we live in. He was one of the first people to recognize that the government and military were going to be important patrons of science research and development. For the first time, Michael Hiltzik tells the riveting full story of Lawrence and his legacy.

Hiltzik shares many surprising facts about Ernest Lawrence and his times, including:

  • The Large Hadron Collider, the European project that discovered the Higgs boson in 2012, is the latest generation of the device that Ernest Lawrence invented in 1930 in his one-man laboratory at the University of California in Berkeley.

Lawrence’s first cyclotron, which cost less than one hundred dollars and fit in the palm of his hand, used magnets and electrodes to jolt protons in a spiral path to energies that enabled them to penetrate the atomic nucleus. During his life he continued to build more powerful cyclotrons so big they required their own buildings. But even Lawrence would be staggered by the scale of the Large Hadron Collider, which occupies a tunnel 17 miles in circumference buried beneath the Swiss-French border and incorporates no fewer than four individual, late generation cyclotrons. One other thing the LHC and Lawrence’s cyclotrons have in common: they rank as the greatest tools for discovering new subatomic particles of their times.

  • Without Ernest Lawrence, the atomic bomb would never have been built.

In the prewar period, Allied physicists, especially those who had fled the Nazi regime, were panicked that Hitler’s scientists might learn the secrets of nuclear weapons before those in the U.S. and Britain. The allies launched a research program into the fissioning of uranium, but by 1941 progress in the U.S. had been so slow that the Roosevelt Administration was on the verge of canceling the project until after the war. Lawrence, then the most respected physicist in America, learned from his British friends that a bomb was feasible, and could be developed in time to be used in the war. He brought the word to Roosevelt’s top advisors, and committed himself to working full time to make the bomb a reality. At that meeting in September 1941, on Lawrence’s recommendation, the Manhattan Project was saved. He would go on to invent the process that produced all the uranium in the Hiroshima bomb, and supervised the team that discovered plutonium, which fueled the Nagasaki bomb.

  • Ernest Lawrence invented the color television tube that delivered the first color TV broadcast in history and became the Sony Trinitron—in the 1950s.

Late in life, while he was still managing two major high-energy physics labs for the University of California and participating in disarmament talks for the U.S. government, Lawrence returned to his first love—tinkering with electronic devices. Having witnessed a demonstration of a murky and blurry color TV tube invented by RCA, he decided he could do better. In a basement lab that soon grew to house more than a dozen assistants, he designed a system in which an electron “gun” shot electrons at a screen of colored phosphors, producing a startlingly bright and sharp image. With money from Paramount Pictures, which thought color TV would be a huge consumer hit, he began producing the tubes in an Oakland factory. On June 2, 1953, Lawrence’s color tubes produced a television landmark: While a worldwide audience of 150 million watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II from Westminster Abbey in London in black and white, one hundred young patients at a London children’s hospital watched it in color on Lawrence tubes, in the first color broadcast in history. But color TV was still a technology ahead of its time; RCA abandoned its own efforts and Lawrence’s company went bust. In 1961, Paramount sold the technology to the Japanese upstart Sony, which used it as the design of the most successful color TV technologies ever, Trinitron.

  • Ernest Lawrence’s friendship with the generals who won World War II helped create the military-industrial complex.

Lawrence’s partnership with the military leaders of the Manhattan Project during the war was amply repaid in the first postwar years, when the Army and Navy still reigned as the preeminent sources of funding for scientific research in the U.S. By then, Lawrence’s cyclotrons and synchrotrons were so large they cost millions of dollars each; these were price tags that overwhelmed the budgets of universities, even when they joined together in research consortiums. Lawrence pioneered the practice of bringing together funding from several sources—universities, foundations, government, and industry—by providing them all with discoveries that suited their own needs. His model was wartime, when he designed the uranium plant at Oak Ridge but brought in a subsidiary of Eastman Kodak to run it. He designed Livermore National Laboratory (now Lawrence Livermore) as the government hydrogen bomb research lab, but hired a subsidiary of Chevron to build and run the lab. This melding of the interests of private corporations and government patrons to produce funding for research and development soon spread, yoking industry and the military together in an alliance that eventually caused that other wartime hero, President Dwight D. Eisenhower to warn of the “unwarranted influence” of the alliance and its “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.” Eisenhower cautioned, “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields…Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity…The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.” He might have been describing the world Ernest Lawrence created.

  • Lawrence’s widow, Molly, tried to get her husband’s name removed from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Watching a documentary in 1982 about the MX, a new H-bomb-carrying ICBM developed at Lawrence Livermore, she was suddenly struck by “how dreadful it was that Ernest’s name was associated with this, lending legitimacy and respectability.” Concluding that her husband would have been appalled by the idiocy of the arms race, she started a campaign to remove his name from the H-bomb lab he had founded. It was a Quixotic effort. The University of California, which ran Livermore, refused to support her plea, as did California’s U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston. In fact, John Lawrence asserted, his brother Ernest might well have endorsed Livermore’s work; he had founded the lab as the main research facility for thermonuclear weapons, because he was convinced that developing the H-bomb ahead of the Soviet Union was a matter of national security. His name remains on the Livermore Lab, which still conducts secret research for the U.S. government, to this day.

Hiltzik’s thoughts on the future of Big Science:

  • The biggest “Big Science” programs today, such as Europe’s Large Hadron Collider and NASA’s planetary explorations and studies of Earth from space, face daunting challenges.

One challenge is financial. As the programs grow bigger, the willingness of their government patrons to fund them diminishes. The LHC cost an estimated $9 billion; continuing its research into subatomic particles will require many billions more. “This is going to be a very hard sell,” wrote physicist Steven Weinberg just before the LHC’s landmark discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. NASA’s Earth Science program faces political pressure from opponents of climate change research.

  • Big Science” is increasingly the province of private corporations, but they’re unwilling to fund research tangential to their narrow business goals.

The work of the government-funded $3-billion Human Genome Project, for example, was eventually taken over by private corporations—but their goal was to commercialize genomic research, a burgeoning and potentially very profitable field. Basic research, traditionally the duty of universities like Berkeley, which supported the early work of Ernest O. Lawrence, faces dire funding shortfalls even as it becomes more expensive to conduct.

  • A new generation of scientific leaders with the public stature and credibility to attract patrons willing to spend millions or billions.

People like Ernest Lawrence and James Watson, who led the Human Genome Project, have not yet emerged in this generation. The future of “Big Science” may depend on that happening.

  • There’s hope in international consortiums, or entrepreneurs willing to spend heavily in the public interest.

The Large Hadron Collider was built by 21 countries, and supported by as many as 36 more. Bill Gates sponsors billions of dollars of research into disease cures, and Elon Musk millions of dollars in technological research and development.

  • The main driver of “Big Science” is the same driver behind all science: human curiosity about the world we inhabit and the universe around us.

This curiosity hasn’t gone away, and the public is more cognizant than ever that the greatest challenges to our existence on this planet are scientific (addressing climate change, finding fuel alternatives, defeating disease), and that only Big Science has the capacity to meet those challenges.

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Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex
Simon & Schuster
Publication date: July 7, 2015
ISBN: 9781451675757
E-book ISBN: 9781451676037
Price: $30


Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who has covered business, technology, and public policy for the Los Angeles Times for more than twenty years. He currently serves as the Times’s business columnist. His previous books include Colossus: The Turbulent, Thrilling Saga of the Building of Hoover Dam and The New Deal: A Modern History. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Hiltzik’s other awards include the 2004 Gerald Loeb Award for outstanding business commentary and the Silver Gavel from the American Bar Association for outstanding legal reporting. He is a graduate of Colgate University and the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and lives with his family in Southern California.

Visit the author at or follow him @hiltzikm