The over­looked physi­cist be­hind the bomb’s birth

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Gregg Herken is an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Amer­i­can diplo­matic history at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia and the au­thor of “Brother­hood of the Bomb: The Tan­gled Lives and Loy­al­ties of Robert Op­pen­heimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Ed­ward Teller.” His most re

Most ac­counts of the build­ing of the atomic bomb be­gin with the let­ter that Al­bert Ein­stein wrote to Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt in Au­gust 1939, warn­ing about “ex­tremely pow­er­ful bombs of a new type.” The let­ter was ac­tu­ally the in­spi­ra­tion of physi­cist Leo Szi­lard, who be­lieved that FDR would be more likely to lis­ten to Ein­stein. What these ver­sions over­look is that the bomb could have — in­deed, al­most cer­tainly would have— been ready long be­fore it was dropped on Hiroshima, in Au­gust 1945, had Szi­lard gone to Ernest Lawrence in­stead of Ein­stein. If the atomic bomb had been suc­cess­fully tested in, say, 1943, it prob­a­bly would have been dropped on Ger­many, not Ja­pan. “The Ger­mans owed a lot to Szi­lard,” Isi­dor Rabi, another atomic sci­en­tist, told me in a 1984 in­ter­view.

Rabi’s com­ment gives some idea of the im­por­tance, and the per­sua­sive power, of physi­cist Ernest Or­lando Lawrence, an of­ten-over­looked fig­ure in the story of the de­vel­op­ment of nu­clear weapons and the fo­cus of Michael Hiltzik’s bi­og­ra­phy, “Big Science.” The in­ven­tor of the cy­clotron, the orig­i­nal atom-smasher, for which he re­ceived the No­bel Prize in 1939, Lawrence is per­haps best known as the orig­i­na­tor and pro­moter, if not the in­ven­tor, of big science: large, col­lab­o­ra­tive and ex­pen­sive sci­en­tific re­search projects.

Lawrence’s Ra­di­a­tion Lab­o­ra­tory at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley was the pro­to­type and sub­se­quent model for big science be­fore World War II. The Rad Lab built par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tors of ever-in­creas­ing size and power. While Lawrence’s “pro­ton merry-go-round” started out small (the first mod­els re­sem­bled “whisky flasks run over by a truck”), they grew to be enor­mous. The ware­house-size, 184-inch “he-man” cy­clotron would pro­vide the proof of con­cept for Lawrence’s ca­lutron, a mass spec­tro­graph used in the in­dus­trial-scale elec­tro­mag­netic sep­a­ra­tion of ura­nium. The U-235 that made up the “Lit­tle Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima came from Lawrence’s ca­lutrons.

Be­cause Lawrence was an ex­per­i­men­tal­ist, not a the­o­rist, some physi­cists con­sid­ered him a sec­ond-rate sci­en­tist: “a me­chanic,” sniffed one the­o­rist. But even Lawrence’s crit­ics con­ceded that he had a first-rate in­tu­ition and that his skill as a sales­man for big science projects, es­pe­cially his own, was un­ri­valed. Lawrence demon­strated that skill in im­por­tun­ing pri­vate foun­da­tions and Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Pres­i­dent Robert Sproul for the­money to build his big ma­chines. Early on, he per­fected the art of play­ing one prospec­tive pa­tron against another. When Sproul ob­jected that one of Lawrence’s schemes rep­re­sented “a pretty large un­der­tak­ing,” Lawrence cheer­fully agreed, adding, “It prob­a­bly could bedoneat Har­vard.” He got the money. (Sproul lamented that Berke­ley had be­come not so much a univer­sity with a cy­clotron at­tached as a cy­clotron with a univer­sity at­tached.)

Iron­i­cally, Lawrence’s suc­cess as a bril­liant pro­moter prob­a­bly con­trib­uted to his lab­o­ra­tory’s ini­tially lack­lus­ter rep­u­ta­tion for sci­en­tific in­no­va­tion. De­spite hav­ing the big­gest and most ex­pen­sive ma­chines, the Rad Lab missed mak­ing sev­eral key break­throughs in par­ti­cle physics, in­clud­ing the dis­cov­ery of in­duced or ar­ti­fi­cial ra­dioac­tiv­ity. “It was there wait­ing for us,” one of Lawrence’s ex­per­i­menters wailed. “His pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with im­prov­ing the cy­clotron con­doned sloppy and inat­ten­tive ex­per­i­men­tal work,” Hiltzik writes. On the most im­por­tant break­through, how­ever— the re­al­iza­tion that atomic fis­sion could be used to make a stu­pen­dously pow­er­ful weapon — Lawrence’s in­tu­ition paid off.

Lawrence is most in­ter­est­ing when put in the con­text of his re­la­tion­ships with other im­por­tant fig­ures of the time. His friend­ship, and later ri­valry, with Berke­ley physi­cist Robert Op­pen­heimer is a case in point. To­gether, the two were what has been de­scribed as a per­fect mar­riage in physics. Lawrence the ex­per­i­men­tal­ist used me­tal shims to fine-tune the big cy­clotron, but it was Op­pen­heimer the the­o­rist who un­der­stood why these ad­just­ments were nec­es­sary: be­cause of rel­a­tivis­tic ef­fects. As Hiltzik puts it, “Here again, experiment pre­ceded the­ory!” un­til Op­pen­heimer came along. Another fig­ure in this story is Al­fred Loomis, a wealthy ec­cen­tric who pri­vately funded some of Lawrence’s re­search. Like­wise Lewis Strauss, a vain and vin­dic­tive man who was Lawrence’s con­ser­va­tive ally. As a mem­ber of the post­war U.S. Atomic Energy Com­mis­sion, Strauss cyn­i­cally used Lawrence in a suc­cess­ful cam­paign to de­stroy Op­pen­heimer’s rep­u­ta­tion.

The au­thor of sev­eral books on the in­ter­play of so­ci­ety and tech­nol­ogy, Hiltzik is best at mak­ing the science of Lawrence’s lab ac­ces­si­ble to the reader. Oth­er­wise, “Big Science” is mostly a syn­the­sis of pre­vi­ous books on the same topic; it breaks no new ground in the area of nu­clear history. Hiltzik also does not dwell on what might be called the dark side of big science: the fact, for ex­am­ple, that big se­crecy was usu­ally the price of gov­ern­ment fund­ing. Af­ter Hiroshima, Lawrence no longer had trou­ble find­ing sup­port for his re­search, since the Depart­ment of De­fense be­came his wealthy pa­tron. “We ran it with a big bar­rel of green­backs,” ob­served one of Lawrence’s “boys” about Cold War fund­ing for the Ra­di­a­tion Lab­o­ra­tory. In 1952, the Rad Lab was joined by another lab­o­ra­tory to also bear its founder’s name. Lawrence Liver­more be­came the coun­try’s sec­ond weapons-de­sign lab­o­ra­tory, com­pet­ing with Los Alamos, the home of the atomic bomb.

Iron­i­cally, the vir­tual in­ven­tor of big science seem­ingly lost faith in both the process and the prod­uct near the end of his life. Lawrence died pre­ma­turely in 1958, at age 57, fol­low­ing an op­er­a­tion to deal with his chronic ul­cer­a­tive col­i­tis. By then, it’s likely that he had come to re­gret the price he paid for the em­pire he built: his com­plic­ity in the de­frock­ing of his one­time friend Op­pen­heimer. Even so, as Hiltzik points out, big science to­day has be­come too big, too com­plex and too ex­pen­sive to fit the old par­a­digm: “The fu­ture of Big Science ap­pears to de­pend on in­dus­try, whose . . . pri­or­i­ties are very dif­fer­ent from those of univer­si­ties, re­search foun­da­tions, and gov­ern­ment.”


Ernest Lawrence, left, and J. Robert Op­pen­heimer con­fer in 1946 at the Ra­di­a­tion Lab­o­ra­tory at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley. The two friends later be­came ri­vals.

BIG SCIENCE Ernest Lawrence and the In­ven­tion That Launched the Mil­i­taryIn­dus­trial Com­plex By Michael Hiltzik Si­mon & Schuster. 512 pp. $30

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