Big Science

Time magazine cover feautures Ernest Lawrence, 1937
Lawrence appeared on the cover of Time for November 7, 1937, on the occasion of his winning the Comstock Prize of the National Academy of Sciences. The caption under his name says "He creates and destroys."( Copyright TIMEPIX.)

The pre-war Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley displayed characteristics that would become common in post-World War II laboratories—what would later be called "Big Science." Many experiments could no longer fit on the table-top of an academic laboratory and be done by an individual researcher with a few assistants. Experiments in fields like nuclear physics demanded big teams of researchers and whole buildings full of sophisticated equipment. To run such a laboratory required engineers, technicians, managers, accountants, and support staff from secretaries to janitors, in addition to scientists. An elaborate administrative structure coordinated these diverse functions. Such complex social organizations outstripped the resources of private foundations and were increasingly funded from public sources.

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At right: Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's scientific and technical staff arranged within and on top of the magnet of the 60-inch cyclotron, 1939.

Many big-science teams were multi-disciplinary, as the work required expertise in several academic fields. To implement the biomedical program Lawrence added physicians and biologists to the staff of the Radiation Laboratory, including his brother John, a doctor of medicine. Chemists also joined the lab to study the properties of new radioactive elements produced by the cyclotron. The Rad Lab combined engineering with physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine in a broader interdisciplinary field of nuclear science.
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"Shall we call it nuclear physics or shall we call it nuclear chemistry?"

Lawrence, 1935

Irene and Frédéric Joliot-Curie in their laboratory
Irene and Frédéric Joliot-Curie in their laboratory. You can read more about them in our Web Exhibit on Marie Curie.

The new experimental devices could do many things that table-top instruments could not. But the Rad Lab's example shows that an obsession with Big Science could come at the cost of research results. As Lawrence and his lieutenants pushed for bigger cyclotrons and higher energies during the 1930s, they learned of important discoveries in nuclear physics made in Europe with less funding, fewer people, smaller devices, and lower energies. Some of the discoveries could have been made in Berkeley, if Lawrence had diverted some attention from improving accelerators to the particles produced and the means of detecting them. In 1932 Cockcroft and Walton in Cambridge, England managed to knock alpha particles from a lithium nucleus with the help of artificially accelerated protons. Two years later, Frédéric Joliot and Irène Joliot-Curie in Paris discovered artificial radioactivity—aluminum that they bombarded with alpha particles was changed to a radioactive isotope. Said Lawrence after the announcement from France, "We have been kicking ourselves that we haven't had the sense to notice that the radiations given off do not stop immediately after turning off the bombarding beam."

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Hear Lawrence talk about the cyclotron in the Silliman Lecture at Yale University, October 15, 1947.




"We looked pretty silly. We could have made the discovery at any time."

Robert Thorton, a Rad Lab physicist,
on artificial radioactivity.

When Lawrence did turn his attention to physics research, his fast-paced, cut-and-try methods did not always succeed. One of the lab's first major forays into research led Lawrence to champion the hypothesis that the deuteron—a proton and neutron joined to form the nucleus of heavy hydrogen—is not stable but instead disintegrates. Scientists elsewhere raised experimental and theoretical objections, and eventually the Rad Lab results were found to come from contamination of the cyclotron by stray deuterons. Lawrence did not mope over his mistake.

"We would be eternally miserable if our errors worried us too much because as we push forward we will make plenty more."

Lawrence, 1934

Glenn T. Seaborg, 1945
Glenn T. Seaborg speaking at Northwestern University, November 16, 1945.
Lawrence's program started paying off towards the end of the decade. Important scientific findings accumulated in the Rad Lab, making it one of the main centers of the flowering field of nuclear science. Edwin McMillan discovered long-lived
Edwin McMillan and Ernest
Lawrence, 1939
Edwin McMillan and Ernest Lawrence at the control panel of the 60-inch cyclotron, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, 1939.

radioactive isotopes and, with Glenn Seaborg, Emilio Segrè, Martin Kamen, J.J. Livingood, and Philip Abelson, explored the nuclear and chemical properties of many new isotopes and elements. Luis Alvarez and Felix Bloch measured the magnetic moment of the neutron. Alvarez and Robert Cornog demonstrated that tritium (a proton plus two neutrons) is radioactive, while helium-3 (a neutron plus two protons) is stable. Kamen and Samuel Ruben separated the radioactive isotope carbon-14 and applied it to the study of photosynthesis.

Lawrence and Oppenheimer
Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer in the early 1930's.

Berkeley theorists, in particular Robert Oppenheimer and his students Robert Serber, Melba Phillips, Wendel Furry, and Sydney Dancoff, helped foster the experimental program of the Rad Lab. Oppenheimer was Lawrence's opposite in many ways. He was a cosmopolitan Jew with interests in transcendental philosophy, a European-trained abstract theorist and an expert in quantum and relativity theory. Lawrence was a midwest Lutheran, a U.S.-trained pragmatic experimentalist, and an expert in electronics and fundraising. Yet the two soon became good friends. The pair represented the rise of American physics, where theory—long neglected by practical-minded Americans—was increasingly allied with experiment.

The Rad Lab program benefited also from frequent visitors who came to learn the art of cyclotronics at its origin. For those who could not come in person, Lawrence sent blueprints and experienced cyclotron builders from his lab. Lawrence's willingness to provide access to his lab and information about its machines helped promote the spread of cyclotrons in the U.S. and abroad. By 1940 there were twenty-two cyclotrons completed or under construction in the U.S., and eleven more overseas. Many of their builders had spent time in Lawrence's lab.

Rad Lab chalkboard
A Rad Lab chalkboard publicized Lawrence's Nobel Prize.
Rad Lab cameraderie
Rad Lab camaraderie; Lawrence is second from the left in back.

The Rad Lab's policy of openness and the accumulating successes in its research program earned Lawrence recognition from scientific peers and the public. In 1939 Lawrence won the Nobel Prize in physics, "for the invention and development of the cyclotron and for results attained with it, especially with regard to artificial radioactive elements." The award helped to convince the Rockefeller Foundation to provide $1.4 million in support of Lawrence's next endeavor, a massive cyclotron with a magnet 184 inches across and a projected energy beyond 100 million electron volts. Lawrence hoped the energy would be sufficient to produce mesons, new particles recently detected in cosmic rays, which were lighter than protons but heavier than electrons.

Lawrence did not travel to Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize in person. With World War II raging in Europe and German submarines active in the Atlantic, he was mobilizing the instruments and staff of the Rad Lab to help the war effort even before the U.S. entered the war.

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Next: Lawrence and the Bomb


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