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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.

Berkeley’s deuterium results, which Lawrence quickly broadcast to the world of physics, stunned scientists elsewhere. The hypothetical process, quantified, did not in practice square with the known mass of the neutron or with the stability of deuterium nuclei. Cavendish scientists had learned that it was wise to scrutinize strange nuclear reactions by checking for impurities in the apparatus. Double-checking Lawrence’s bizarre reaction, they traced it to the contamination of the cyclotron walls and targets by deuterium atoms. The homogeneous protons derived from the collision—and fusion—of deuterons with other deuterons, not from their disintegration upon collision with target nuclei. Lawrence, confessing the “stupidity” of his error, attributed it to how the great productivity of the cyclotron discouraged “methodical quantitative measurements.” Heilbron and Seidel comment that “he had persisted in his errors, however, in the face of warnings from many sides of the likelihood of contamination,” and that the laboratory was continually in a state of “hype and hurry,” under “pressure for quick results to encourage financial backers.”

By the standards of Depression-era physics, the radiation laboratory was a big-money enterprise. Lawrence paid $10,000 a year just for electricity. Between 1931 and 1940, in Heilbron and Seidel’s accounting, the capital costs of Lawrence’s laboratory totaled more than $162,000 and the operating costs at least $390,000, which far exceeded the research budget of the Berkeley physics department. Also part of the real costs of the laboratory was the value of the free labor—some one hundred man-years worth at least $155,000 in the estimate of Heilbron and Seidel—that was contributed to its activities by unemployed, cyclotron-smitten physicists. About 40 percent of the actual operating dollars were provided by the state of California. The federal government supplied another 20 percent of the same costs and an equal fraction of the capital expenditures. All the rest—roughly 40 percent of the operating costs and 80 percent of the capital costs—came from private sources, from individuals, corporations, and foundations. Ernest Lawrence had to be in the money-raising business constantly.

He hawked an assortment of dreams to any patron who might listen. The overarching dream was that the disintegration of nuclei under accelerator bombardment might eventually point the way to the practical release of the energy contained in the atomic nucleus. Lawrence was not alone among scientists in selling this prospect, but he was more persistent than most. Leading physicists of the day pooh-poohed the likely advent of practical nuclear energy without some major change in knowledge, and Lawrence did come to think it “prudent,” as Heilbron and Seidel write, “to blunt his many hints that nuclear physicists might open the atom for business.” However, the efforts of his laboratory yielded some impressive practical results. Early in the game, his search for high voltages led to the forging of an exceptionally powerful, commercially promising X-ray tube. The cyclotron, with its intense beam, could be deployed to produce radioactive isotopes and neutrons. The radioisotopes—notably radiosodium and radiophosphorus—and the neutrons might all be exploited for medical research and cancer therapy, much like radium, but Lawrence’s accelerators provided them all far more abundantly and cheaply than radium. “Machines of science produce radiation equal to $5,000,000 worth of radium,” one press report had it.

Lawrence and his laboratory were favorites of the press, which since the war had begun to develop a cadre of science reporters, many of them with scientific training, who happily enlisted themselves in the task of selling science to the public.4 One such journalist founded Science Service in 1920, to promulgate the results of research to the newspapers and magazines, and, in 1934, a group of them formed the National Association of Science Writers. David Dietz, a leader in the association and the science editor of the Scripps-Howard newspapers, told a meeting of physicists in 1935, “Your best allies in creating public support for science are the newspapers.” Lawrence, initially shy of seeking publicity, readily adapted himself to the practice once it became clear that donors and Berkeley administrators liked favorable news stories. He cultivated Dietz and William L. Laurence, of The New York Times, who, after the first deuterium experiments, called the cyclotron a “new miracle worker of science” that might release the energy chained in the atom. He unabashedly wrote press releases that celebrated at once both the cyclotron and any patron of its uses—for example, the National Advisory Cancer Council, a federal agency which, by dispensing money to his laboratory, had “greatly accelerated the day in our generation when countless cancer sufferers may be benefitted by these new radiations.”

The medical dividends, both present and predicted, were critical to the funding of Lawrence’s laboratory. He explained to Niels Bohr, “I must confess that one reason we have undertaken this biological work is that we thereby have been able to get financial support for all of the work in the laboratory. As you know, it is much easier to get funds for medical [than for physical] research.” The medical returns of accelerator work also led Lawrence and one of his main patrons—the Research Corporation—to suppose that the Radiation Laboratory might be made to pay—or more than pay—for itself.

The Research Corporation was a nonprofit organization that had been founded in 1912 to hold and exploit patents generated in academic research and to plow whatever they might earn back into basic science. It had supplied a crucial grant to Lawrence when he was first developing the cyclotron and it nudged him to take out and assign to itself patents on the machine. In the 1930s, universities, long dubious about patents, were turning receptive to them, partly as a way of controlling the useful research they produced, partly in the hope of realizing income to offset the financial damage of the Depression. Lawrence was highly responsive to that kind of thinking. He urged his X-ray tubes upon the Research Corporation, noting, “I am told that there is a very big market for such deep therapy outfits.” He cooperated enthusiastically with the corporation’s maneuvers to establish a dominant position in the new radiopharmaceutical industry. Lawrence was unable to obtain patents on the production of artificial radioelements (not for lack of trying but because the US patent examiner raised difficult technical objections to his claim). He consoled the Research Corporation’s lawyer that, after all, the corporation still owned the cyclotron, which “I am sure will always be the apparatus that produces the radioactive substances.” That prospect encouraged the Research Corporation to go on providing grants to Lawrence’s laboratory and it encouraged Lawrence, at the corporation’s behest, to patent improvements on the cyclotron. However, the cyclotron was outstripped as the production apparatus for radio-elements by the nuclear reactors developed during the war.

Lawrence was gratified by Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide victory in 1936, and he welcomed WPA and National Youth Administration support for workers in his laboratory. Gradually, however, he took on the political color of the well-to-do company he sought to keep. As Heilbron and Seidel write,

He came to dislike noncomformity (to his ideas!) and liberal causes, to hold that “science is justified only to the extent that it brings substantial riches to mankind,” and to declare research scientists—among whom he enrolled himself—to be “essentially conservative people.”

As the radiation laboratory progressed to larger budgets, bigger machines, and higher energies, the staff expanded—forty people appeared in a 1937–1938 group photograph—and the laboratory environment became more tightly organized. Team research was a salient feature of its activities and a high premium was placed on cooperativeness. Social eccentricity was tolerated; political organizing strongly discouraged. Staff recruitment reflected the anti-Semitism then standard in American physics—that is, Jews who conformed to the Jewish stereotypes were unwanted, but “good” Jews were acceptable. Lawrence typically praised the young Berkeley chemist Martin Kamen: “He is Jewish and in some quarters, of course, that would be held against him, but in his case it should not be, as he has none of the characteristics that some non-Aryans have. He is really a very nice fellow.” Lawrence hired Kamen and another Jew, Emilio Segrè, who originally came as a visitor from Enrico Fermi’s group in Rome; one of Lawrence’s closest Berkeley friends during the 1930s was Robert Oppenheimer. But the cultural norm at that laboratory was on the whole WASP, western, and insular. Very little of its substantial resources were devoted to assisting displaced European scientists.

Under Lawrence’s unremitting drive for higher energies, the cooperative emphasis made for what some staff perceived, in the phrase of Heilbron and Seidel, as “slavery to the cyclotron.” The young physicist Robert Wilson (who in the 1970s would build and direct Fermilab) chose to leave the laboratory because it “epitomizes team research at its worst.” Improving the cyclotron, producing radio-elements, using the machine for neutron therapy—to a number of staff, all these activities seemed to take precedence too often over the conduct of actual nuclear research. In a sense, the laboratory was a factory for the cyclotron and its products. Increasingly, Lawrence became the CEO rather than the chief scientist. He lamented in 1937, “I do not even know what substances are being bombarded or exactly what is being done.”

Nevertheless, visitors found the laboratory remarkable and its director a man of irrepressible enthusiasm and joie de vivre. Staff who did not mind co-operative togetherness relished the place. Even Kamen, who regarded Lawrence with a cool eye, recalled many years later the “enthusiasm and zeal for accomplishment that pervaded the Radiation Laboratory in those magical years.” The accomplishments in nuclear physics steadily mounted. By the mid-1930s the cyclotron could excite nuclear reactions over the entire periodic table, stimulating transmutations and artificial radioactivity that permitted analysis of many of the key structural features of and interrelationships among atomic nuclei. Laboratories elsewhere specialized in only one type of reaction, e.g., bombardment by deuterons. By 1939 Lawrence’s laboratory commanded a dominant position in virtually all types of reactions—deuteron, neutron, proton, and alpha-particle. Heilbron and Seidel provide an index of the percentage of all nuclear reactions known at a given time credited or co-credited to Berkeley: in 1935, one reaction in ten; in 1937, one in four; in 1939, almost one in two.

Earlier in the Thirties physicists at the Cavendish and other European laboratories had disparaged the cyclotron, considering the machine too temperamental to be reliable, raising an eyebrow at the sometime sloppiness of the research done with it, and keeping it at arm’s length as another coarse Americanism. By the later Thirties, cyclotrons were operating with turnkey reliability and even the Cavendish physicists were worried that, without a cyclotron, they might fall behind. In 1935, James Chadwick, who at the Cavendish, in 1932, had discovered the neutron by using simple radioactive sources and had just won the Nobel Prize for the achievement, wrote to Lawrence, “I must have a cyclotron apparatus. When I look at your cloud chamber photographs and see the enormous number of recoil tracks I realize what I am missing.”

Lawrence was pleased to foster the construction of cyclotrons everywhere. Neither he nor the Research Corporation exercised their patent rights on the machine (most physicists were unaware that the cyclotron was patented at all). Lawrence made blueprints and techniques for the machine freely available throughout the world of research, and he did the same with its artificially radioactive products. The diffusion of the accelerator was frequently accomplished by veterans of the Radiation Laboratory, many of whom built or perfected cyclotrons elsewhere. By 1940, twenty-two cyclotrons had been built or were under construction in the United States, five were operating in Europe, and the Japanese had asked Lawrence for blueprints. In 1940, too, his ambitions and influence boosted by the receipt of the Nobel Prize, Lawrence was granted $1,150,000 by the Rockefeller Foundation to construct a colossus of a machine—a cyclotron 184 inches in diameter that would generate 150 million electron volts.

Cyclotrons built in the United States after 1936 tended to be designed and used primarily for biomedical work rather than physics research. Heilbron and Seidel reveal, on the basis of documents in the Nobel archives, that the deliberations in the Swedish Academy of Sciences leading to Lawrence’s prize stressed the power of the cyclotron to manufacture artificially radioactive sources equivalent in their radiative power to hundreds of grams of radium. They point out that the prize was well justified for the invention of the cyclotron laboratory, though not, as the ultimate official citation suggested, for anything that Lawrence himself uncovered about the nucleus. In truth, no major discovery had yet been made in a cyclotron laboratory. At a Berkeley ceremony for his Nobel Prize, at the end of February 1940, Lawrence allowed that the 184-inch behemoth would be “the instrument for finding the key to the almost limitless reservoir of energy in the heart of the atom.” Actually, the key—fission—had already been found in 1938 by the brilliant efforts of Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, working with desktop apparatus in a beleaguered laboratory in Berlin (Heilbron and Seidel’s discussion of that remarkable discovery is among the best available).

In a world plunging into war, the Rockefeller Foundation justified the 184-inch cyclotron as “an emblem of the undiscourageable search for truth which is the noblest expression of the human spirit.” Other philanthropies were not so nobly inclined in 1940, and neither was the Rockefeller Foundation sympathetic to requests for help in building smaller cyclotrons. Funds for accelerators were contracting. Heilbron and Seidel observe,

The cyclotroneers escaped the logic of their situation—an increasingly competitive struggle for large sums in an increasingly inelastic market, a growing disparity between builder-physicist and operator-technicians, a tightening tension between service to others and science for one-self—by going off to war.

To a significant degree, the key technical projects of the war were led by cyclotron enthusiasts, including Lawrence himself, and during the war years Big Science became the dominant mode in physics. The cold war sustained this trend. Funds were provided for giant accelerator laboratories in the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, and Europe. In 1953 the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) was set up in Geneva, Switzerland, not least to stem the brain drain to the United States and to prevent Europe’s falling irreversibly behind the New World in particle physics.5 During the last half century, these high-energy accelerators have yielded fundamental knowledge about the structure of matter and energy, and they have served as important instruments of training for scientists who have gone into productive work in other fields. They have produced little technology that has been useful either for military security or for economic competitiveness.

Now that the cold war is over advocates of the supercollider have, in a sense, been thrown back to a logic resembling that of 1940 accelerator physics. Currently, however, the struggle is for the shrinking federal research dollar; the disparity is between the power of the high-energy faction and that of other physicists (not to mention the rest of the scientific community); and the tension is between the intellectual hopes of pure physics and the practical needs of the nation’s economy. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising to see supercollider enthusiasts exploiting—with more assiduousness than has been their custom since World War II—some of the methods of Ernest Lawrence’s high-energy political economy, including cultivation of the press, raising the prospect of utilitarian spinoffs, and lobbying potential patrons, politicians among them. Already they have found themselves compelled to enlist state government (in Texas, where the supercollider is to be located) and attempt to make philanthropists out of the Japanese, who have been asked to contribute $2 billion to the project.

However, the political economy of contemporary accelerator physics remains fundamentally different from that of Lawrence’s day. The press is less of a pushover for the positive claims of scientists than it was in the 1930s (or at the height of the cold war).6 And the main cost of the supercollider will have to be borne by the United States government. The question remains open whether the tax-paying public can be persuaded to tithe for a vastly expensive project that can promise, in truth, to reveal only marvels about physical behavior at energies found in the stars.

  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.

  4. 4

    See Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 10–13.

  5. 5

    See Armin Hermann, John Krige, Ulrike Mersits, and Dominique Pestre, History of CERN, Volume I: Launching the European Organization for Nuclear Research (North-Holland Press, 1987), pp. 169–174.

  6. 6

    See Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear, pp. 364–365.

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