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Big Science
Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex
By Michael Hiltzik
Simon & Schuster
HC, 528 pgs. US$30
ISBN: 1-4516-7575-5

Bringing the factory to the science class

By Steven Martinovich
web posted August 24, 2015

Big ScienceThe Industrial Revolution of the mid-1700s to the early 1800s ushered in a new era of manufacturing. Gone were the days of an artisan crafting items one at a time, replaced by automation and workers producing individual components that came together as finished products. In earlier days the quality of each lone product was judged, afterwards quantity remained supreme – further augmented by the perhaps inevitable introduction of metrics designed to measure everything from cost per unit to the number of movements an employee took in their small role for the final product. Not surprising given that it took big money to produce the factories and the products involved.

That science managed to resist the pressure of industrialization as long as it does would probably come as a surprise to those of us today used to industry of science. It wasn't until the early 1900s, however, that science took the first steps to becoming Big Science – industrial in scale in terms of money and resources, even if the final products were rarely understood by the layperson. American physicist Ernest Lawrence was the chief architect of that transformation, a story told in Michael Hiltzik's engrossing Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex.

Lawrence's first giant contribution to science, and the instigator of the Big Science paradigm, was in 1929 when he invented the cyclotron – a device which produced high energy particles that allowed scientists to explore the structure of the atom by smashing those particles together. Almost never content with exploiting current technology, Lawrence began planning a bigger cyclotron – a pattern which repeated itself constantly over the coming decades. In addition to his work on basic research – augmented by a staff of graduate students and scientists who in their own right would become world famous – Lawrence advanced the practical use of science, including the medical uses of isotopes and, perhaps less laudatory, nuclear weapons.

As talented as a scientist as Lawrence was, as Big Science chronicles, was Lawrence's gift as an administrator and fundraiser. Big Science required big staffs and Lawrence was unequalled in his ability to lure the best scientists to his Rad Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, then the arguable center of nuclear research on the planet. As the size and scale of Lawrence's operation expanded – a new cyclotron inevitably raised new questions for scientists to answer, requiring an even bigger cyclotron to replace it – his gift for fundraising came into play. With a sterling reputation, Lawrence was able to cadge funds from the University of California, private industry, foundations, and eventually government once the United States was drawn into the Second World War and faced fears of a German nuclear weapon.

Lawrence's fiefdom was broad by any measure. In addition to his duties at the Rad Lab, he also assumed responsibility over the Livermore National Laboratory and was an in demand expert for government. That influence, however, began to wane in the 1950s. Figures in government began to question the ever increasing demand for resources devoted to atomic research – particularly given the pressure for social spending, and grew exasperated by the conflicting voices over the nuclear arms race and the attendant testing. Crucially for Lawrence, some in the scientific community blasted his lack of defence of J. Robert Openheimer, who was stripped of his security clearance in 1954 during the Second Red Scare.

As Hiltzik has it, Lawrence's legacy is a mixed one. Lawrence's work in helping open new vistas in understanding the world at the atomic level pushed scientific knowledge forward immeasurably. Balanced against that was Lawrence's unrestrained push for nuclear weapons – understandable during the Second World War, less so with his championing of the hydrogen bomb afterwards – which has bequeathed us a world in perpetual state of unease, particularly as they continue to proliferate.

His status as the father of Big Science is equally equivocal. Although the industrialization of science allowed it to push the boundaries of knowledge that would have been impossible under the old model of the scientist and their humble work bench, it also created a world where science was often divorced from academics, "no longer part of the academic institution, but an institution unto itself, " as Hiltzik writes. In an era of strained resources, Big Science is often questioned no matter its ultimate objective – something the scientist backers of the Large Hadron Collider can amply attest to. Big Science can discover the Higgs boson or put an astronaut on another planet, but is that what we as a civilization want?

Ultimately that and other questions will be the province of the public, politicians and scientists to debate over. It is another of Lawrence's legacies that we have this debate, though the great scientist likely would have waved off concerns in his quest for new knowledge. It is thanks to Hiltzik's Big Science that we have a new and compelling history of one of the 20th Century's greatest scientists, his work and the model he spawned which will perhaps allow us to better answer those questions. ESR

Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.

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