Αρχική > βιβλία, επιστήμη > ‘Big Science,’ by Michael Hiltzik

‘Big Science,’ by Michael Hiltzik



Ernest O. Lawrence in the 1950s, with the 184-inch cyclotron in the background.CreditLawrence Berkeley National Library

By ROBERT P. CREASE, The New York Tmes, JULY 13, 2015

Modern scientific machinery is increasingly international and astronomically expensive. The Thirty Meter Telescope (T.M.T.) taking shape atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii costs $1.4 billion, will be 18 stories high and is under construction in partnership with Japan and other countries. ITER, a $21 billion, 24-story-high project to explore nuclear fusion, is being built in France by seven international partners, including the European Union, Russia, China and the United States. The Large Hadron Collider (L.H.C.), which produced the Higgs boson three years ago, cost $10 billion, is 17 miles in circumference and straddles two nations.

In his lucidly written “Big Science: ­Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Hiltzik provides a solid account of the early days of the trend toward such gargantuan projects. Its progenitor was Ernest O. Lawrence, an intense and ambitious South Dakota youth whose passionate inquisitiveness, practical abilities and scientific intuition drew him to experimental physics. With a forgivable touch of false journalistic precision, Hiltzik identifies the birth date of Big Science as a spring day in 1929 when Lawrence, a 28-year-old associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, realized he could create a new scientific tool by turning particles into bullets. Instead of using lots of energy all at once to kick particles down a straight barrel as others were doing, Lawrence would send them in circles, giving them a gentle push with each lap. Lawrence spent the next decade welding together science and engineering in ever bigger “cyclotrons,” as they were jokingly called. Indispensable tools of nuclear physics, cyclotrons grew in diameter from four inches to 11 inches, 27 inches, 37 inches and 60 inches — and increased in cost from less than $100 to tens of thousands of dollars — with a stupendous 184-inch machine in the works by 1939, the year Lawrence won the Nobel for the achievement.

Lawrence’s greatest contribution, however, was not building any specific cyclotron — a task often delegated to others — but creating the infrastructure that made them possible. His was less a scientific than a managerial genius. He learned how to feed the ambitions of wealthy and powerful patrons. To university administrators he promised prestige, to biologists medical isotopes, to industrialists new materials and energy sources, to philanthropists glory.

In 1931, Lawrence acquired his own building for cyclotron research, the “Rad Lab.” From the outside, one visitor recalled, the two-story wooden shack resembled “a secondhand tin shop, a dinky little place.” Inside, science was undergoing a phase change. The Rad Lab’s environment was nearly egalitarian, strongly collaborative and generally exciting — no closed doors, no private ownership of equipment or ideas. The only authority was the cyclotron. It was the theater, the humans its stagehands.

One of Lawrence’s closest friends was J. Robert Oppenheimer. The two were “a most enigmatic pair,” Hiltzik writes — the extroverted, well-groomed and apolitical Lawrence, whose parents were Midwestern Lutherans, contrasted with the moody, ruminative and leftist Oppenheimer, whose parents were wealthy secular Jews from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The book contains a photograph of the two in which Lawrence, neat and grinning, stands alert and balanced “like a youthful Mark Antony,” while Oppenheimer ­slouches against a Packard, James Dean-like, “his hair an unkempt mop, his eyes glaring mistrustfully at the lens from under hooded brows.” The two ruled American physics in the 1930s; Lawrence its experimental, Oppenheimer its theoretical wing.

Lawrence had a dark side. His cockiness and haste undermined some of the Rad Lab’s early scientific work, causing it to miss some discoveries and make embarrassing mistakes. But he learned from these episodes, incorporated more rigor into the laboratory’s work and redoubled his efforts.

World War II wrought another phase change. Lawrence was deeply involved with the Manhattan Project and got along famously with its head, Gen. ­Leslie Groves. He rescued the bomb project from cancellation and helped install Oppenheimer as leader of the Los Alamos laboratory, promising to take over if Oppenheimer failed. Lawrence’s devices separated the uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb, and produced the first samples of the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb.

As the Manhattan Project’s huge ­scientific-engineering juggernaut rolled into action, Big Science finally began to outrun Lawrence’s ability to control it. He built huge cyclotron-like separators, called calutrons, to make uranium bomb fuel — but the original one failed when its powerful magnets threatened to pull the machine apart. For the first time in his career, Hiltzik writes, Lawrence was faced with “an engineering crisis he could not fix himself.” Exhausted, depressed, tortured by back spasms, he checked himself into a hospital.

He recovered, and by the end of the war was dreaming up dramatic new possibilities, which produced “a transformation of American science as profound as any change inspired purely by scientific discovery: the launch of peacetime government patronage.” But realizing these ambitions required cultivating political and military leaders, and the formerly apolitical Lawrence found he could no longer keep political issues out of the Rad Lab.

Lawrence’s dark side now grew darker. He refused to repudiate the controversial University of California Regents’ requirement that all employees sign a loyalty oath, which caused several Rad Lab scientists to leave. He founded a weapons lab to develop the hydrogen bomb that still bears his name (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). When Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked, in part because of his earlier left-wing activities, Lawrence initially agreed to testify against his old friend. (Belatedly realizing this would damage the Rad Lab, he backed out of testifying, citing a debilitating attack of colitis and showing visitors his bloody toilet as proof.) He opposed a proposed nuclear test ban during the 1956 presidential election. In 1958, Lawrence attended a conference on test-ban inspections in Geneva that taxed his health. He died a few weeks after returning.

Hiltzik’s tale is important for understanding how science and politics entwine in the United States, and he moves it along efficiently, with striking details and revealing quotations. In an epilogue he suggests that Lawrence’s story may be an elegy for Big Science itself, but this is needless embellishment. The kind of enormous projects Lawrence initiated have indeed run up against huge managerial, financial and social challenges. The Thirty Meter Telescope’s construction was temporarily halted this spring by protesters who called it “cultural genocide” to build the facility on a sacred mountain; the ITER project has experienced lengthy and expensive delays; and the Superconducting Supercollider, which would have been three times more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider, was canceled by Congress in 1993.

But in yet another phase change, science is becoming not simply bigger in scale but ever more interdisciplinary and international. An emblem of this “New Big Science,” as historians call it, is Sesame, an accelerator nearing completion in Jordan, a joint project of nine Mideast partners including Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey, some of which do not formally recognize one another. Yet they collaborate on the machine because of its indispensability in bread-and-butter applications to semiconductors, medicine, environmental research and archaeology. Big but not gargantuan collaborative projects like this one, even more than the L.H.C., T.M.T. and ITER ­megaventures, are the best ­evidence of Lawrence’s legacy.


Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex

By Michael Hiltzik

Illustrated. 512 pp. Simon & Schuster. $30.

Robert P. Crease is a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University, a a co-editor in chief of Physics in Perspective and the co-­author of “The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty.”

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Iman Maleki, b. 1976. | Iranian Realist painter

Iman Maleki, b. 1976. | Iranian Realist painter

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