Science@Berkeley Lab Magazine banner Berkeley Lab logo
January 30, 2006
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Team players

We like to say that Berkeley Lab is the oldest of the Department of Energy's laboratories, but that's a good-natured bit of anachronism. Ernest Lawrence founded his Radiation Laboratory on the Berkeley campus of the University of California in 1931; during World War II he and his colleagues led in establishing other core laboratories that were later gathered under the wing of the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the DOE.

By temperament and outlook Lawrence pioneered a way of doing science that proved essential during the war years, an approach that has emerged in the decades since as even more vital for grappling with the world's most pressing problems of human health, energy, and the environment. It's often called Big Science, and it's true that some manifestations of it are very big, including machines like particle accelerators kilometers in circumference and experimental groups numbering in the hundreds. But size isn't the essence of this kind of science.

Luis Alvarez, one of "Lawrence's boys" and the man perhaps best remembered for discovering that it was an asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, put it this way: "Every idea has its critics, but they never bothered him. If you interest them, Ernest said, they will join you."

What Lawrence really invented — and made succeed — was the notion of getting specialists to climb out of their boxes and work together. The Rad Lab itself got its start as a haven where chemists and physicists could get free of their departmental bailiwicks and cooperate with each other. Engineers got as much respect as theoreticians in the Radiation Lab of the 1930s, and medical doctors did too. Today we use the fancy word "multidisciplinary" to describe this idea. It no longer seems odd; the days of the gentleman natural philosopher are long gone. Scientists working alone don't get much of a chance to make a difference.

Lawrence thought of it as team science, and the stories in this issue of Science@Berkeley Lab show that teamwork is alive and well 75 years after the founding of what would become Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

We welcome your comments and questions; drop us an email.

Paul Preuss, Editor, Science@Berkeley Lab