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Begetting Big Science

Lawrence and His Laboratory: A History of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Volume I

by J.L. Heilbron, by Robert W. Seidel
University of California Press, 586 pp., $29.95

These days, suspicion of big, federally funded scientific projects is perhaps more widespread than ever, in small part because they sometimes produce fallible technologies—spacecraft that blow up and space telescopes that don’t work—and in larger part because the enormous projects—for example, the superconducting supercollider particle accelerator, estimated to cost $8 billion—are highly expensive.

Related suspicions have recently emerged even among scientists, notably among physicists who do not worship in the high-energy collider branch of their church and among biologists who dissent from the human genome initiative. The two groups hold in common the belief that the respective projects that each opposes will divert scarce resources from more important research. The biologists, going further, have been telling the press and the Congress that the genome effort’s cost—an estimated $3 billion—will merely buy a lot of trivial science.1

The supercollider, which comprises a single gargantuan installation, and the genome project, which is fostering small-scale activity in many laboratories around the country, are actually very different from each other, not only in organization but in the scale of their respective technologies and likely scientific (not to mention social) payoffs. But both are taken to represent the seduction of science by big money—whether federal or industrial—and big organization. As such, both run counter to the strain in American culture that disparages commercialism and celebrates pluralism, autonomy, individualism. That strain is as common to American science as it is to society at large. It is manifest in the continuing preference of many physicists for working in small groups and in the resistance of many academic biologists to the commercial inroads of biotechnology and in their fear of a centralized, bureaucratic control of molecular genetics in the United States.2

In the 1920s Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith described some of the temptations to corruption that were—already, long before federal dollars came flooding into university research—besetting American science.3 Martin Arrowsmith, the hero, is an ambitious yet honest Midwesterner, an aspiring physician who discovered the high ideals and rigorous standards of pure science in the person of Max Gottlieb, a German-Jewish import to the biology faculty of the state university, who resolved to spend his life in pure biological research. Although diverted for some years into the practice of medicine and public health, with its material and social rewards, Arrowsmith eventually returns to Gottlieb and pure research by taking a position at the McGurk Institute of Biology, in New York City, a fictional version of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research. The McGurk facilities are plush, its salaries handsome, and its staff’s obligations, at least nominally, only those of advancing basic knowledge. In reality, its administration is self-servingly concerned with the glorification of McGurk. Its leaders urge the staff to achieve quick major break-throughs, beat other research institutions to the punch, advertise the results to the press, and promulgate claims, even if unsubstantiated, for their medical efficacy. Arrowsmith is caught between the demands of the McGurk organization and his own sense of scientific integrity, which Gottlieb bolsters, admonishing him not to publish before he is certain of his data. He compromises himself enough to achieve fame, an enormous salary, a rich New York society wife, and a promise of the McGurk directorship.

John Heilbron and Robert Seidel find apt analogies to Martin Arrowsmith in Ernest O. Lawrence, the physicist who in the early 1930s devised the particle-accelerating cyclotron (the great-grandfather of the supercollider). The young Lawrence came from the Midwest, discovered the charms of pure physics while an engineering student at the University of South Dakota, and was encouraged in his passion for science by his doctoral adviser, the transplanted English physicist W.F.G. Swann. Like Arrowsmith, Lawrence was boyish, unsophisticated—J. Robert Oppenheimer called him “unspoiled”—a mixture of unembarrassed ambition and enthusiasm. His chief enthusiasm was for evermore-powerful cyclotrons.

During the 1930s Lawrence built the Radiation Laboratory of the University of California at Berkeley, in order to perfect and exploit successively larger versions of the machine—a process not without its costs. Heilbron and Seidel note, “As Arrowsmith discovered, fulfilling one’s scientific ambitions according to the highest standards while running a large research institution constantly in need of money may not be possible,” adding, “Lawrence cut corners, lost innocence, and built the largest laboratory for nuclear science in the world.” Arrowsmith ultimately chose to reclaim his integrity by fleeing McGurk to join a like-minded refugee in a life of research in a cabin in Vermont. Unlike Arrowsmith, Lawrence had neither the sensibility to recognize the costs nor the inclination to be troubled by them (or to be deluded into thinking that great laboratory science could be forged in the woods). Lawrence loved building a large institution at least as much as he loved science. He preferred to follow a technological imperative, to march with fortune and history.

By 1939, the year of his Nobel Prize, Lawrence’s radiation laboratory—now the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory—was a scientific institution of the first rank. In the words of Heilbron and Seidel, it was also “the the forerunner of the modern multipurpose national research laboratory, the direct parent of Livermore and Los Alamos, an essential contributor to the wartime work of Oak Ridge and Hanford, the inspiration for the founders of Brookhaven”—in short, a model for what is usually meant by the phrase Big Science.

The significance of the enterprise makes Lawrence and His Laboratory a work of major importance. The book rests on immense research, including materials drawn from the Lawrence papers at Berkeley and numerous other American and European manuscript collections. The authors explore the development of accelerator technologies and nuclear physics, not only in Berkeley but elsewhere in the United States and in Europe. Their discussion of the technical issues unapologetically demands somewhat more than rudimentary scientific literacy, but the liveliness of the physics is everywhere made tangible to the general reader by the vitality of the author’s prose. They also analyze the economics of physics in California and elsewhere; the operations and scientific influence of the laboratory, its personality, culture, and expectations in relationship to Lawrence’s guidance.

Heilbron is a member of the history faculty at Berkeley; Seidel, one of his former students, is a historian at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The research for their book was partially supported by the Department of Energy. Despite their institutional connections, they were left with complete freedom in writing Lawrence and His Laboratory. Physics and institutions, technologies and patrons, personalities and practices, are all scrutinized with an unblinking eye. They are also rightly taken to be aspects of one organic enterprise.

The higher learning in post-World War I California provided a setting in which Lawrence’s ambitions could flourish. The war had disposed statesmen and state legislatures to recognize the practical value of physics and chemistry. The state’s swiftly growing economy demanded an expansion of electrical power, which in turn called for knowledge and expertise in the physics and engineering of high voltages. In the 1920s science at Berkeley was on the make, hungrily and—with the willing support of the state—successfully driving to achieve a rank equal to that of the prestigious institutions in the East and the new California Institute of Technology several hundred miles to the south. Lawrence, who had shown high promise in experimental physics, was a catch for Berkeley. Berkeley recruited him to the faculty in 1928, appointing him as an associate professor despite his youth—he was twenty-seven—and relative lack of experience, providing him with a research allowance, and tacitly promising to back him in whatever he wanted to do.

The cyclotron project was a response to the desire of physicists to accelerate charged particles in sufficient quantity to energies high enough to bombard, disintegrate, and, thus, expose the structure of atomic nuclei. The feat was thought to require machines that would directly generate at least one million volts, but such voltages overtaxed most known insulating materials and accelerating tubes. During the late 1920s, several physicists and engineers suggested getting around the problem by subjecting the particles to a series of modest voltage boosts, thus accumulating energy “on the particles, not on the apparatus,” as Heilbron and Seidel neatly put it. However, only Ernest Lawrence pressed ahead with the idea, devising the cyclotron and making it work.

The cyclotron consisted of two hollow, semicircular electrodes (two “Ds”), the straight edge of one facing that of the other but separated to form a gap across which an oscillating voltage was imposed. The machine operated by magnetically forcing the charged particles—ions—to spiral inside the Ds in a plane; it kept their movement synchronized with the oscillating voltage so that each time they crossed the gap between the Ds they were stepped up in energy, the successive increments cumulating, after scores of cycles, to a voltage far higher than that across that Ds themselves. Heilbron and Seidel write:

Only an inventor could think that the beautiful synchronization could last, that the ions could be kept going for one hundred turns without colliding with other molecules or flying from the median plane into the walls of the electrodes or going astray in crossing the gap.

In January 1932, Lawrence, with the indispensable help of a graduate student named M. Stanley Livingston, obtained a sizable flux of protons at an energy of more than one million volts, with only 4,000 volts on the Ds. In the judgment of Heilbron and Seidel, “The technical achievement was mainly Livingston’s; the inspiration, push, and, above all, the vision of future greatness, were Lawrence’s.”

Even before the million-volt cyclotron, which measured eleven inches in diameter, was completed, Lawrence was pressing ahead with plans for a twenty-seven-inch version and overseeing the development of linear types of the machine, which accelerated the particles in a straight line through a succession of synchronized voltage gaps. From the twenty-seven inch device, he moved up to a thirty-seven-inch, then a sixty-inch version, which generated sixteen million electron volts when it started operating, in 1939. Early on, Lawrence was far more occupied with progressing to higher energy machines than with using the machines to hand for physics research. As a result, his laboratory unwittingly ceded the first nuclear disintegration by particle accelerator to a team at the Cavendish Laboratory, in Cambridge, England, who accomplished the feat, in 1932, with particles accelerated to only a few hundred thousand volts. And it missed the discovery of artificial radioactivity, which, in 1934, Frédéric Joliot and Irène Curie accomplished with naturally emitted high-energy particles.

The scoop by the Cavendish team stimulated Lawrence to begin to think of his machines as instruments of research, though not immediately with the kind of caution and rigor that Arrowsmith’s mentor Max Gottlieb would have urged. The discovery of heavy hydrogen (deuterium) in 1932 provided a new kind of ionic projectile—the deuteron, a combination of a proton and a neutron—to hurl at nuclei. In 1933, the Berkeley laboratory threw deuterons at the nuclei of a number of different elements. Whatever the element, the reaction always seemed to yield protons of the same energy. Lawrence concluded that, because the emergent protons were homogeneous across so many elements, they had to be coming not from the target nuclei but from disintegration of the bombarding deuterons—their splitting up, upon collision with the target, into the constituent proton and neutron.

  1. 1

    William J. Broad, “Big Science: Is It Worth the Price?” The New York Times (May 27, 1990), pp. 1, 12; (May 29, 1990), p. B5; Robert Wright, “Achilles Helix,” The New Republic (July 9 and 16, 1990), pp. 30–31.

  2. 2

    Robert Wright, in “Achilles Helix,” pp. 23 and 25, provides a cogent discussion of some of the key differences between the supercollider and genome projects.

  3. 3

    The temptations were made evident to Lewis by the bacteriologist Paul de Kruif, who assisted him in the composition of the novel. See Mark Schorer’s Afterword in the New American Library edition of Arrowsmith, 1961, pp. 432–433.

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