The Man, His Lab & His Legacy

By Lynn Yarris

"Lawrence will always be remembered as the inventor of the cyclotron,
but more importantly, he should be remembered as the inventor of
the modern way of doing science."
— Luis Alvarez, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize for Physics

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is the namesake and
legacy of its founder, Ernest Orlando Lawrence, winner of the
1939 Nobel Prize for Physics for his invention of the cyclotron."

Every employee at this Laboratory has seen some variation of the above statement — but how many of us really appreciate what it means? Yes, he was the inventor of the cyclotron, the granddaddy of today's most powerful accelerators. Yes, he was the "father of big science," the first to advance the idea of doing research with multidisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers. But these facts alone do not explain why Nobel-laureate-caliber scientists such as Edwin McMillan, Luis Alvarez, Melvin Calvin and Glenn Seaborg continued to speak of themselves as members of Ernest Lawrence's team long after they'd established their own considerable reputations.

To celebrate Lawrence on what would have been his 100th birthday, August 8, Currents takes a brief look at the life of the man who was, said biographer Herbert Childs, "an American genius, a success story in the true Horatio Alger genre."

Born Grown Up

Ernest Lawrence was "born grown up," Gunda Jacobson often said when speaking of her eldest son. She and her husband, Carl Lawrence, both the offspring of Norwegian immigrants, met while teaching at the high school in Canton, South Dakota, where Carl was also the superintendent of schools. They were married on Aug. 22, 1900, and Ernest was born the following year. In keeping with a Norwegian tradition, his name would have been drawn from the names of his grandfathers, Erik and Oles. Believing there were too many Norwegians named Erik and Oles, Carl Lawrence took liberties with the tradition.

Gunda contracted typhoid within a week of Ernest's birth, and for years afterwards she would worry about his inability to gain weight — his childhood nickname was "Skinny," even though he would grow to just over six feet tall and weigh about 180 pounds most of his adult life. She also worried about his incessant curiosity. Playing with matches at the age of two, he set fire to his clothes and was saved by Gunda in the nick of time.

"Ernest was always of a happy disposition and life to him seemed to be one thrill after another, but he was also always persistent and insistent!" Gunda said in response to a comment that rather than have been born grown up, Ernest never outgrew his boyish enthusiasm.

His best friend growing up was Merle Tuve, who would also go on to become a highly accomplished nuclear physicist. Together the boys constructed a very early short-wave radio transmitting station. Lawrence would later apply his short-wave radio experiences to the acceleration of protons.

Lawrence worked his way to a B.S. degree in chemistry in 1922 from the University of South Dakota by selling kitchenware to farming households. This training would later serve him well in his ability to sell scientific projects to government officials and funding agencies. Lawrence began his college career as a premed student, but switched to physics under the guidance of Dean Lewis Akeley, whose picture would always hang in Lawrence's office along with Lawrence's scientific heroes, Arthur Compton, Niels Bohr, and Ernest Rutherford. Ackeley tutored Lawrence privately and sent him to the University of Minnesota where he received his M.A. in physics in 1922. At Minnesota, he came under the guidance of William Francis Gray Swann, a physics professor and accomplished cellist who steered Lawrence into electromagnetic theory and on to Yale University, from which he would receive his Ph.D. in physics in 1925.

Upon receiving word of his historic victory, Lawrence said,
"It goes without saying that it is the laboratory that is honored."

Even as he accepted an assistant professorship at Yale, Lawrence was being courted by U.C. Berkeley, which was most anxious to develop its small physics department. While a professor at Yale he in turn courted a Vassar undergraduate named Mary "Molly" Blummer, who happened to be the daughter of the dean of the Yale Medical School. Lured by the promise of less teaching and more research, Lawrence accepts an associate professor position at Berkeley in 1928, just a few days following his 27th birthday.

Within three years, he was made the youngest full professor on the Berkeley faculty, invented the cyclotron, and become engaged to Molly, whom he would marry in 1932. The cyclotron would be patented in Lawrence's name, but he never asked for any royalties, and he encouraged and helped other laboratories throughout the world to build cyclotrons. Lawrence was also the legal inventor of the Calutron isotope separator — but he assigned the patent rights to the U.S. government for a fee of one dollar.

"Although he greatly enjoyed the luxuries that came with wealth and encouraged others to invent for profit in peripheral areas, Lawrence felt that it was unwise to foster the scientific discoveries of developments for personal profit," Alvarez wrote in his memoirs.

For Lawrence the issue had to do with placing restraints on the open exchange of ideas between scientific colleagues. "Patent-consciousness," he often said, "might turn back the pages of progress."

In 1939, Lawrence became the first person to win a Nobel Prize for work done entirely on a U.C. campus; he was also the first professor from a public university as well as the first native of South Dakota to do so. He won the prize in physics "in recognition of his invention of the cyclotron, of its development, and of the results gained there from, especially with reference to the production of artificially radioactive elements."

Upon receiving word of his historic victory, Lawrence said, "It goes without saying that it is the laboratory that is honored."

The Radiation Laboratory was officially established in 1936. Since 1931 Lawrence and his team had occupied a two-story, clapboard-sided wooden building that had been constructed in 1902. Located near Le Conte Hall, home of the UC Berkeley Physics Department, it was the first of the modern labs in which experimentalists could choose to collaborate on joint projects or work on their own research.

It would also become the first lab in which engineers, led by William Brobeck (who would become an assistant Rad Lab director), were treated as equal partners in experiments with scientists.

The Lab operated round the clock, seven days a week, and those who did not put in 70-hour shifts failed to follow the example set by Lawrence. The only time the Rad Lab was deserted was on Monday nights for two hours during the meeting of Lawrence's beloved "Journal Club," in which Rad Lab members met to swap ideas and information. The brilliant Robert Oppenheimer was a frequent participant, often in debate with Lawrence.

"Oppie could always out argue him, but logic or not, Ernest was usually right," recalled Philip Abelson.

The Radiation Laboratory came into existence as the country was sliding into the bottom-scraping depths of the Great Depression. Yet by 1939 the laboratory and its machines had outgrown campus housing. Lawrence was proposing to build a 100 MeV cyclotron with the potential to create artificial chain reactions and, as he stated, "unlock the vast storehouse of nuclear energy."

In the spring of 1940, the Rockefeller Foundation pledged $1.4 million to fund a "giant cyclotron," as Lawrence called it, with a magnet face 184 inches in diameter on the hillside above the Berkeley campus. Before construction could begin, World War II erupted. Lawrence recruited a stellar group of young nuclear physicists and chemists, including McMillan, Alvarez and Seaborg, to fight the scientific war. Much has been written about the enormous contributions Lawrence and his "boys" made to developing the electromagnetic separation of uranium-235 that resulted in the Hiroshima bomb. However, Lawrence was also heavily involved in launching the MIT Radiation Laboratory and its contributions to radar and the San Diego Anti-Submarine Project and its underwater sound laboratories.

After the victory over the Axis powers, Lawrence completed his giant machine as the world's first synchrocyclotron able to energize protons to 350 MeV, rather than the 70MeV it might have achieved as a cyclotron. With the completion of this machine, Lawrence returned to active research, using deuteron stripping to personally discover nitrogen-17.

For the next several years, he devoted himself to basic scientific research at the Radiation Laboratory, taking great personal interest not only in nuclear physics but also in photosynthesis, medical physics, and nuclear chemistry. Stories of Lawrence dropping by in the middle of the night to ask young investigators what they were doing became legend.

In 1948, Lawrence went before the Atomic Energy Commission to procure funding for a 6.2 BeV proton synchrotron that would be called the "Bevatron" and would be the site of many significant discoveries, including the antiproton.

After the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device in 1948, Lawrence was drawn into President Truman's decision to build a thermonuclear or "H" bomb. By 1952, concerned that a lack of competition for Los Alamos was hampering scientific progress, Lawrence lobbied for and won approval to establish a second national weapons laboratory at Livermore. At the same time, he took up a "hobby" and invented a type of color television tube that is now in use today.

By 1958, Lawrence, having been a key figure in releasing the nuclear genie from the bottle, became a key figure in trying to put it back. Despite suffering from a serious flare-up of his chronic colitis, he traveled to Geneva to participate, at the request of President Eisenhower, in negotiations with the Soviet Union on a proposed treaty that would ban the testing of nuclear weapons. The strain proved too much and Lawrence was rushed back to a hospital at Stanford for surgery.

"This laboratory is his legacy. There is no other laboratory quite
like this anywhere. And it is really because it was created by the
science, the inspiration, the strength of Ernest Lawrence."
— Charles V. Shank, Director
Ernest O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

During his final days, he confided to his wife, Molly, "I wish I'd taken more time off. I would have like to, you know, but my conscience wouldn't let me."

Ernest Lawrence died on Aug. 27, 1958, at the age of 57. He was survived by Molly and their six children, John Eric, Margaret, Mary, Robert, Barbara, and Susan. He had won virtually every major award in his field.

Said Alvarez in his memoirs, "For those who had the good fortune to be close to Lawrence both personally and scientifically, he will always seem a giant among men."

Ernest Orlando Lawrence is the founder and namesake of this laboratory and, as employees here, we are all a part of his legacy.