Ernest Lawrence

In 1931, UC Berkeley scientist Ernest Lawrence invented the cyclotron, which transformed nuclear physics, earned him a Nobel Prize and paved the way for the devastating bombs that helped win World War II. We’ll talk with LA Times reporter Michael Hiltzik about his new book “Big Science,” which outlines Lawrence’s contributions to the Manhattan Project and the rise of the military-industrial complex.

Michael Hiltzik, business columnist for the Los Angeles Times, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and author of "Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex"


    I am real happy you are talking about Lawrence , a great scientist a great history ,actually Lawrence had won a prize of total 500 dollars which he used to design and built his first cyclotron which was a hand held little machine ,but with that he opened the whole field of cyclotrons and experimental physics that lead to all the discovery over the last 80 years including those at the large hadrons machine at Cern in Switzerland ,with all of the new discoveries including the Higgs boson ,and everything else.


    In this discussion I would like to bring the names of two other university of California great scientist ,Owen Chamberlain and Emilio Segre ,both were my professors in the physics dept at U C Berkeley ,and both shared the 1969 Noble prize in physics for their theory of proton anti proton collisions which is the base of all of the new experimental physics and discoveries at the large Hadron Collider at Cern in Switzerland ,which lead to all of the new discoveries of new particles and physics over the last several years .


    Lawrence invention of the cyclotron also lead to many peaceful use including nuclear medicine which saves thousands of lives every year.


    Smashing protons and anti protons at extremely high speed gives an insight in the basic structure of matter ,an example is if you have Swiss watch ,and you would like to see it’s inner components ,but you have no tools to open it , instead you may just smash it on the floor which will open the Watch and all of it’s inner parts fly out ,and then you get to see it ,and figure out how the Swiss Watches are made and what their inner components look like.

  • Sean Dennehy

    It saddens me that most people only think about bombs and power plants when they think about nuclear physics. Lay media isn’t doing enough to shine spotlight on other aspects of nuclear physics research, such as making the periodic table three-dimensional by switching quark types, among other things. It’s a reflection of the state of science media and an apathetic public, where only major news like new pictures of Pluto get attention, but the discovery of the Pentaquark got barely any coverage.

    • Robert Thomas

      In the segment that appeared on the lamentable Science Friday program last week Ira Flatow interviewed the formidable Sheldon Stone of Syracuse, who clumsily stumbled through an explanation of the pentaquark observation – not realizing that Flatow wasn’t the tiniest bit familiar with even a Scientific American level of understanding of the subject. The audience was left wondering why, if there were five quarks in this hadron, what happened to the sixth quark? Had the latter been discovered yet? That’s how it all ended.

      In the present discussion, author Hiltzik informs us that the ‘Large HAYdron Collider’ is a sort of cyclotron where – as our host reminded us – the ‘Higgs basin’ was discovered.

    • Doug F

      Those who reveal that they work at LBL (Lawrence Berkeley Lab, on the hill above campus) routinely get the response “oh, you’re one of those evil people who make H-bombs.” LBL’s very last classified or military project ended in the ’70s; since then it’s been nothing but open & public research. It’s Lawrence Livermore Lab & Los Alamos that do the bomb designs & other classified military stuff.

  • Robert Thomas

    Earnest O. Lawrence also invented the electromagnetic mass spectrometer, which was a modified cyclotron.

    There is an excellent volume, Lawrence and Oppenheimer by Nuel Pharr Davis (1968, Simon & Schuster).

    I read the book about 1970, when my blind grandmother received it as a 16 2/3 RPM bundle of VERY long playing records (about twenty disks) from the Library of Congress’ Talking Books program.

    There is a particular moment I remember from the Davis book, where the writer recounts the moment when Lawrence realizes, after doing the calculation in his head, that the cyclotron wouldn’t have to be very big to work.

    “‘That’s interesting,’ he thought to himself. ‘R [radius] cancels R. R cancels R.'”

    The first working cyclotron was about five inches in diameter.

    • Robert Thomas

      I think the Davis book may not be well accepted by know-nothing revisionist journalists.


    The shutdown of the Superconductor Supercollider in Texas in 1993 by the Republican party was a great betrayal to Lawrence ,and the American people ,it also led to the loss of thousands of scientific jobs as well the loss of science research in the U S and exporting all advance that started by Lawrence and U C Berkeley and send it all to Cern…Shameful act.

    • Francisco Niebres

      H.R.2445 – Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, 1994 was the bill that killed the SSC. It was passed by the 103rd Congress in 1993 and signed into law with regret by Pres. Clinton on October 28, 1993. The bill was initially passed by the House of Representatives, 350-Yes, 73-No, 11-Abstentions. 248 Democrats voted Yes to terminate funds. Four Democrats voted No. Republicans voted 101-69 in favor of the bill.

      The Senate first passed the bill 89-10. 51 Democrats and 38 Republicans voted Yes. Both Jesse Helms, R-NC and Paul Wellstone, D-MN, voted against. Wellstone eventually voted to pass the final resolution, but Bob Kerry, D-MA and Russ Feingold, D-WI, joined 9 Republican colleagues to reject.

      The 103rd Congress passed The Family and Medical Leave Act, The Brady Bill, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, The Violence Against Women Act, The Federal Assault Weapons Ban and NAFTA. At the time of H.R.2445’s passing, Democrats held majorities in the House of Representatives 257-176 and the Senate 56-44. Republicans had not held control of both houses since 1954.

      I’m very surprised your comment made it On Air without minimal fact-checking by the producers and even more so that the Mr. Hiltzik took the bait and repeated your sentiment.

  • Robert Thomas

    posting error

  • Another Mike

    The Superconducting Supercollider was seen as a boondoggle for Texas. Using Fermilab as the core of the Superconducting Supercollider would have made far more sense — the scientists were there, the housing was there, the universities were nearby, there were experienced control room and maintenance crew, etc. And the ring would have mostly run through cornfields.

    • Robert Thomas

      As a lay person with a modest interest in physics (As a teenager, I was once thrilled by the opportunity to ask Burton Richter a question about charmonium resonance), I followed the planning and initial construction of the SSC. I attended a lecture given by Leon Lederman in 1981 or thereabout and was awed and inspired. Later, my heart steadily sank – not by the project’s cancellation but by the poor conceptualization of the program, the internecine scrapping and mistake after mistake made in its promotion.

      By 1990, I began referring to it, morosely, as the Superexpensive StupidCollider.

      The remains of the SSC site still exist as an historical warning about how NOT to pursue a big program in American science.

  • Robert Thomas

    The New Horizons spacecraft has shown what Big Engineering can do. Now it will be the turn of Modest Science to use what data it collects to tell us more about the world.

  • A Different Perspective

    My brother interned at the Nevada test site post-graduation in nuclear physics and subsequently went on to work at both the Lawrence Livermore and Berkeley National Laboratories. After 25 years as a nuclear engineer, he underwent an epiphany and switched his profession to medicine and radiology. He then became an outspoken critic of nuclear energy. That was too late, however, to save him from years of exposure to radioactivity. He died of cancer at 53. Many of his fellow colleagues also died prematurely of cancer at an alarming rate. As a final tribute to my brother’s passion and life’s work, I must submit that Ernest Lawrence created a behemoth, a curse upon humanity that may very well prove to be our global nemesis. And still we glorify this madman’s achievements? Better we reflect on where we are headed as we live in the belly of the beast that gave birth to this nuclear monster. Yet we dare to blame Iran, as a denial and projection of the evil that we ourselves have become.

    • Another Mike

      A friend of a friend of mine worked as a health physicist in Livermore Labs n the 1970s. He complained that researchers thought nothing of slapping together their own X-ray generators, caring little about necessary shielding. So my impression is of a place where people felt free to take unnecessary risks.

    • Robert Thomas

      I’m sorry for your loss.

      Your characterization of Lawrence – a far from perfect figure – is misplaced. Lawrence was not a madman.

      Marie Curie’s lab chair is not safely approachable.

      In the documentary Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail (2015), hosted by Australian-Canadian physicist Derek Muller and broadcast the other evening on PBS, Muller narrates the story of Aboriginal people who created petroglyphs that may – in their depiction of human figures with abnormally swollen joints – have been a published warning about dangerous minerals nearby.

      People have been interacting with radioactive materials for a long time. We ignore the misfortunes of earlier victims at our peril.

      • Darthmaul

        Comparing Marie Curie with Lawrence on issues of Nuclear safety is disingenuous at best. When Curie was doing her work, nobody really understood radioactivity. The same can’t be said for Lawrence. This country also with full knowledge of the dangers, exposed servicemen to radiation exposure during the Nevada tests that resulted in increased cancers among them.

  • Doug F

    Lawrence & his brother actually invented nuclear medicine. Their very 1st experimental subject was a cancer victim…their own mother.

  • Robert Thomas

    Though “moral equivalence” and “moral equivocation” nay both be ideas of fair consideration with respect to the events of Lawrence’s working life, they don’t mean the same thing.

  • Robert Thomas

    My own casual knowledge about the events addressed by this book and their characterization as they are discussed here by Mr Hiltzik don’t diverge significantly.

    Hiltzik criticizes the Nuel Pharr Davis book as “fanciful” and “not widely accepted [by historians] as an authoritative source” and given the cozier relationships that prevailed in the 1960s between establishment journalism and the “military industrial complex” (a label that meant something quite different to Dwight Eisenhower than it does to us now), skepticism is warranted. But I read that book more than once and it’s no hagiography.

    Despite also having had undoubtedly less critical remove from the people and events, though, and having written in a time when Manhattan Project secret classification was still severe, the proximity of Davis’s work to the era and to the people allow some advantages utterly unavailable to Hiltzer. These include, obviously, the opportunity to actually speak to the principals, most all now long dead.

    There is also some little puzzling business that ‘klangs’ a bit, such as the assertion of the idiosyncratic notion that Lawrence was the “best known American-born scientist in America during his lifetime”; Certainly, in the years immediately following the end of WWII, this title could only be ascribed to Robert Oppenheimer.

    Also, the U 235 enrichment mechanism used at Oak Ridge included Lawrence’s unwieldy Calutrons (“CALifornia” + “University” + “cycloTRON“) and if Hiltzer says Lawrence himself conceived of the overall process there, I defer. But the crucial gas diffusion portion of the process was developed at Oxford University under the direction of the British Military Application of Uranium Detonation Committee.

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