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And it all started in California, with Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron, a peerlessly efficient and effective atom smasher, and his partnership with another young, ambitious physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Before Lawrence’s arrival on the woodsy campus in 1928, followed by Oppenheimer a year later, no student could lay claim to a complete education in physics without having done a turn at one of Europe’s great centers of theory and research. In Göttingen, Copenhagen, or Cambridge they would sit at the feet of Max Planck, Niels Bohr, or Ernest Rutherford, absorb these masters’ knowledge, and carry it home. Soon enough, it would be to Berkeley that students would make their pilgrimages, coming from all corners of the world to learn how to smash atoms and unlock their secrets with the help of a marvelous new machine Lawrence had invented, backed up by Oppenheimer’s theoretical explanations. The old masters themselves would come, too.

What started there still drives much of twenty-first-century science. The physics and biology labs at Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, and California’s other great institutions of learning are modern manifestations of the Big Science paradigm. The Human Genome Project was a $3 billion Big Science exercise, nurturing not only a new field of study but new industries. California’s $6 billion stem cell research program is the largest such project sponsored by any state. Research into climate change is a quintessential Big Science endeavor.

Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (operated by CERN), with which three thousand physicists discovered the elusive subatomic Higgs boson particle in 2012, is the latest iteration of the first cyclotron Ernest Lawrence built more than eight decades ago. That first device cost less than one hundred dollars and fit in the palm of his hand. Its descendant today occupies a tunnel seventeen miles in circumference, buried under the French and Swiss countryside, built at a cost of $9 billion.

The invention that made Lawrence’s name was born in 1929. Lawrence had recently joined the faculty of the University of California, which had a lot of money and beautiful facilities and now had turned to assembling a science faculty to match. Physics itself was at a crossroads. The older, departing generation, scientists like Ernest Rutherford and Marie Curie, had probed the atomic nucleus with the tools nature gave them: alpha and beta rays emitted from radioactive minerals such as radium, husbanded by the thimbleful. With those tools, that generation had figured out the structure of the atom and discovered x-rays and radioactivity. But they had gone about as far as possible. To delve deeper into the nucleus, they recognized, science would need probes of higher energies, which could only be achieved through human ingenuity. Rutherford threw down the challenge for the new generation. He called for an apparatus that could charge a probe with ten million volts, yet still be “safely accommodated in a medium-size room.”

Scientists all over the world took up his challenge. But they discovered that when you load an apparatus with ten million volts, what happens is you blow up the apparatus. Think of trying to fire a mortar shell out of a cardboard-barreled cannon. Laboratories filled up with shards of splintered glass. One team of intrepid German researchers strung a cable between two Alpine peaks to capture lightning during a thunderstorm, and they did—but the effort ended with one of them getting blasted off the mountain to his death.

Lawrence began his career at a moment when physics had hit a brick wall in its understanding of the atomic nucleus. The obstacle was galling; physicists felt as if they could peer over the wall at a misty landscape, but couldn’t get there. One night in Berkeley, Lawrence had a brainstorm that would breach the wall: what if you don’t put the voltage into the apparatus, but build it up on the probe? If you start with a proton, say, with 100 volts, and give it a 100-volt jolt, now it’s got energy of 200 volts. Another jolt, and it’s 300, and so on. But a linear accelerator designed to keep delivering these jolts via synchronized electrodes arranged in a line would have to be almost a mile in length—not exactly fitting into Rutherford’s comfortably sized room.

Then came the second part of Lawrence’s brainstorm. He knew that a charged particle crossing through a magnetic field follows a curved path. So, apply a magnetic field, and you can bend your proton into a spiral, allowing it to receive repeated jolts from a single electrode. That’s the essence of the cyclotron, reduced to its simplest terms: after enough revolutions, you’ve got a particle that now carries a million volts, ten million, even one hundred million. All you have to do is aim it at a target and let it rip. To Lawrence, the possibilities seemed limitless. (In fact, they would be limited by the effect of relativity, but that was a realization years in the future.) And it all could fit into a medium-size room—at least the first cyclotrons could.

Lawrence knew he was on to something. The next day he bounded across the Berkeley campus, buttonholing friends and colleagues to declare, “I’m going to be famous.”
    -ESSAY: The Origins of Big Science (Michael Hiltzik, Fall 2015, Boom)

I would not have thought there was much point to reading, nevermind writing, another book on the American nuclear program after Richard Rhodes epic two part history : The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun. But Michael Hitzlik's enormously readable account strikes on a new angle as he focuses on not just one participant, Ernest Lawrence, bit one important aspect of the project, Lawrence's almost single-handed development of the "big science" model of research. Where science before the 1920's had largely been conducted by lone researchers in tiny personal labs--like the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge--Lawrence, in his pursuit of ever larger cyclotrons, pioneered the use of grant money, larger teams and government co-operation. One benefit of his work was that when it came time for the Manhattan Project, there was a pre-existing model for such an enormous collaborative project.

Admittedly, that much of the story may not sound exactly thrilling, but the author makes his tale move along briskly by relating the excitement surrounding the successive new discoveries that Lawrence's cyclotrons made technically possible, and the setbacks that often occurred because he was in too much haste to nail down the science. The tension between experimenters and theorists permeates the book. There are also plenty of personality conflicts to add spice, particularly once communists replace Nazis as the enemy that Big Science is working to defeat.

Besides all these elements, Mr. Hitzlik also manages to make the physics reasonably easy to understand--no small achievement.

All in all it's an exemplar of what science writing can be at its very best.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Michael Hitzlik Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Big Science (Simon & Schuster)
    -WIKIPEDIA : Michael Hiltzik
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Michael Hiltzik (LA Times)
    -ESSAY: The Origins of Big Science (Michael Hiltzik, Fall 2015, Boom)
    -ESSAY: Splitting the Atomic Scientists: How the question of building the hydrogen bomb split the Manhattan Project scientific consensus. (Michael Hiltzik, Aug. 7, 2015, US News)
-LECTURE: Video Available of Michael Hiltzik Talk on His ‘Big Science’ Book (Today at Berkley Lab, November 3, 2015)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Michael Hiltzik - The Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex (Inquiring Minds)
    -VIDEO: Book Discussion on Big Science (Michael Hiltzik, August 7, 2015, C-SPAN)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Michael Hiltzik - Big Science : The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist explores the life of Ernest Lawrence and the cyclotron. (Barry Kibrick, October 25, 2015, IPTV World)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Big Science with Michael Hiltzik (The Milt Rosenberg ShowEp. 125, August 4, 2015, The Ricochet Audio Network)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: The Atomic Bomb Kicked Off America's Military-Industrial Complex (Emma Morgenstern, August 6, 2015, Modern Notion Podcast)
    -ARTICLE: I Spy Your IP (Michael Weiss, 4/21/06, Slate)
    -ARTICLE: Los Angeles Times Yanks Columnist's Blog (Howard Kurtz, April 21, 2006, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of BIG SCIENCE : Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex By Michael Hiltzik (Robert P. Crease, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (Jonathon Keats, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (Jules Wagman, The Plain Dealer)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (Kirkus Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (Gregg Herken, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (Sam Kean, American Scholar)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (John Dupuis, Confessions of a Science Librarian)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (World War II Today)
    -REVIEW: of (Gary Bishop, Washington Independent Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of Big Science (Graham Farmelo, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (Michelle Nijhuis, VQR)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (Allan Hauer, Innovation)
    -REVIEW: of Big Science (The Jolly Historian)
    -REVIEW: of DEALERS OF LIGHTNING : Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age. By Michael Hiltzik. (David Pogue, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links: