Books

New book on big science by the LAT's Mike Hiltzik

lawrence-cyclotron.jpgErnest Lawrence in the 1950s, with Berkeley's 184-inch cyclotron in the background. Lawrence Berkeley National Library/NYT.


Michael Hiltzik, the Los Angeles Times business columnist, has another book out. This one is "Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex," on the UC Berkeley Nobel laureate physicist and his work with the atom that led to nuclear weapons. "Hiltzik’s tale is important for understanding how science and politics entwine in the United States," says the New York Times review. The book was reviewed Sunday in both the LA Times and the NYT.

First the LAT review by Jonathon Keats, the author of "Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology."

Lawrence was one of the foremost physicists of the 20th century, a Nobel laureate in the same league as Ernest Rutherford and Marie Curie. Yet what set him apart from his forebears — and became his most far-reaching legacy — was his scientific method. "He was a scientific impresario of a type that had seldom been seen in the staid world of academic research," writes Michael Hiltzik, a Los Angeles Times columnist as well as author. "Far from solitary, he presided over a team of energetic young scientists and graduate students — physicists, chemists, medical doctors, and engineers, all toiling and cogitating in interdisciplinary harmony — and managed millions of dollars with the assurance of a corporate executive."


In other words, as Hiltzik persuasively shows in this absorbing and expansive biography, Ernest Lawrence invented Big Science. Almost singlehandedly he created the context for enormous (and enormously expensive) collaborative efforts such as the $10-billion Large Hadron Collider.

Experimental physics was a small-scale pursuit when Lawrence began his career at UC Berkeley in 1928….

And the NYT review, by Robert P. Crease, a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University and co-­author of “The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty.”

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.

Also in the LA Times: A summer reading guide to 136 books.

Previously on LA Observed:
Book-loving columnist converts to the Kindle


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