Cover image of a book about Big Science

Throughout the twentieth century, the city of Berkeley has been a breeding ground of invention. Even before World War I, there was August Vollmer, who served as police chief from 1909 to 1931 and was widely regarded for transforming police work from thuggery to a modern profession. Over the years since then, the city has been host to an outsized number of notable people who have made world-class contributions to science, industry, journalism, the arts, the military, and innumerable other fields. But none achieved impact as great as Ernest O. Lawrence, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who invented the cyclotron. As this book about Big Science makes clear, the cyclotron was the centerpiece of his scientific work and the building-block of Berkeley physics. And it played a critical (albeit questionable) role in developing the atomic and thermonuclear bombs.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Today, Lawrence is best remembered locally because three institutions bear his name: Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Lawrence Livermore Lab, and the Lawrence Hall of Science. As a long-time resident of the city, I wondered idly from time to time why any individual would be memorialized so extravagantly. Now, having read Michael Hiltzik’s eye-opening biography of Lawrence, Big Science, I fully understand.

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik ★★★★★

Lawrence was much, much more than a brilliant physicist who won the first Nobel Prize in the history of the University of California, Berkeley. He was a science administrator whose invention of the cyclotron and towering managerial talents shaped virtually single-handedly what today we know as Big Science — the collaborative work of often enormous teams of scientists, frequently across national borders, to pave new paths in understanding our lives and the universe we live in.

Working in close collaboration with Robert Gordon Sproul (President of the University of California from 1930 to 1958), Lawrence helped build UC Berkeley into a world-renowned center of learning through his drive, charisma, towering scientific reputation, and prodigious fundraising skills. (Funding for Lawrence’s laboratory often exceeded the combined total of the funds received for all other research at UC Berkeley.) It was also Lawrence who proposed his colleague and then-friend, J. Robert Oppenheimer, to manage what became known as Los Alamos, where the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed and built. He also drove the development of the facility in Tennessee that produced the U-235 fueling the Hiroshima bomb. And, more than anyone else, we have Ernest Lawrence, Edward Teller, and Lewis Strauss to thank for the H-bomb (known in their day as the “super”).

The transformation of American science

Hiltzik concludes that Lawrence “presided over a transformation of American science as profound as any change inspired purely by scientific discovery: the launch of peacetime government patronage.” However, before the Manhattan Project began to pour millions into Berkeley, Lawrence succeeded in fundraising in a broader context, assembling consortia of donors from the foundation world and academia as well as government. It’s difficult not to think of Lawrence as one of the greatest fundraisers ever.

In a real sense, the stature of UC Berkeley today can be traced back to the collaboration of Ernest Lawrence and Gordon Sproul. More than eight decades after the two men began their careers on campus, “Berkeley” is routinely ranked as the world’s greatest public university and is in contention with a handful of others — notably, Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford — for top honors among all institutions of higher learning.

An equivocal figure with a dark side

For all his accomplishments, Lawrence is remembered today as an equivocal figure with a decidedly dark side. Though his seminal role in creating the atomic bomb might be excused as a response to the threat of Adolf Hitler and the military and scientific juggernaut he commanded, Lawrence’s ferocious, no-holds-barred advocacy of the H-bomb is more difficult to understand in the twenty-first century. So are his aggressive enforcement of the University of California loyalty oath and his partnership with Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss in vilifying Robert Oppenheimer.

Although Lawrence began his career at UC Berkeley as a New Deal Democrat (but doggedly apolitical), his views in his later years veered sharply rightward, apparently influenced by his mentors, Alfred Loomis (a wealthy businessman who played a pivotal role in physics research) and UC Regent John Francis Neylan, both virulent anti-Communists. Viewed in the light of later events, when we came to understand how dramatically the Communist threat was exaggerated, I find it difficult to understand Lawrence’s shift so far to the Right. Sadly, he was hardly alone in falling prey to knee-jerk anti-Communism. He was a man of his times, after all.

For more great reading

This is one of the many Good books by Berkeley authors and 10 best books about innovation.

Like to read good biography? Check out Great biographies I’ve reviewed: my 10 favorites.

If you enjoy reading nonfiction in general, you might also enjoy:

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.