Our History: From Particle Physics to the Full Spectrum of Science

January 1989

By Jeffery Kahn, JBKahn@LBL.gov

The oldest of the laboratories that now make up the national laboratory system, Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has a history of trailblazing. Established in 1931 in the formative years of the nuclear age, the Laboratory has made a transition from its original role as a particle physics accelerator facility to a much more diverse laboratory.

The Berkeley Lab, at it is known, is situated on a spectacular hillside site overlooking the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Its proximity to one of the world's great universities is unique among the national laboratories. So, too is its cooperative relationship with the university. The laboratory has more than 3,000 employees. Of its 900 plus scientific staff members, more than 200 are members of the Berkeley faculty. Berkeley Lab is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Ernest O. Lawrence founded the lab in August, 1931. But it was an event that occurred a dozen years before that destined Lawrence's course. Ernest Rutherford undertook an early study of nuclear transformations. The Englishman discovered that nuclear particles induce more transformations as they travel faster. If a machine could be invented to increase the number and speed of the particles, the field of study could rapidly advance; until then, nuclear physicists remained largely stymied.

When Lawrence joined the faculty at the University of California in Berkeley in 1928, he planned to continue his work in photoelectricity. But in 1929, he read about a method for generating the fast particles sought by Rutherford, realized how to engineer such a machine, and started a revolution in physics.

Lawrence designed a machine that worked much like a swing, gradually increasing the speed of the moving particles with each cycle. He made use of the ability of a magnetic field to bend charged particles, allowing the particle to make repeated passes through the same accelerating field, gaining energy on each cycle. In January, 1931, he designed the first successful cyclotron. By August of that year, he had gained the right to use a neglected campus lab to house a larger cyclotron and the University of California Radiation Laboratory was created. As 26-inch, 37-inch, and 60-inch accelerators were developed, this old wooden building became the citadel of the cyclotroneers.

America was in the grip of the Great Depression, at its economic nadir, but Lawrence refused to allow his vision to die. Despite economic conditions, the 1930s were a decade of discovery in nuclear physics and scientists immigrated to America. Attracted by Lawrence's expertise, many were drawn to his nascent scientific mecca. Lawrence also attracted funding, private grants from philanthropists and scarce government money. In 1939, three years after he was named director of the laboratory, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his development of the cyclotron. It was the first of nine Nobel Prizes awarded to Berkeley Lab scientists.

Then war loomed. Albert Einstein warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany might be developing an atomic explosive and Roosevelt authorized a crash program to build a bomb using the principles of nuclear fission. Funds began to flow into the mobilized laboratory, bringing unprecedented changes in its size and scope. Large teams of engineers and scientists encompassing a broad spectrum of disciplines were created and their coordinated efforts were brought to focus on a project. Today, Lawrence is remembered for pioneering this style of research. Historians call this period the beginning of "big science."

In 1942, the Manhattan Engineering District was established within the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to design and build an atomic weapon. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, worked with a team of theoretical physicists there to design the weapon. But within months, it became evident that the job was too big to be done on campus. The team was moved to a new headquarters in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Lawrence developed a plan to separate the explosive, or fissile part of naturally occurring uranium, U-235, from its much more plentiful companion isotope, U-238. Most physicists doubted that his electromagnetic separation process would work. But the bomb project was urgent; concern that the Germans might be ahead in their quest for an atomic weapon meant there was no time to build a pilot project to test Lawrence's design. In February, 1943, ground was broken at Oak Ridge, Tennessee for the gargantuan electromagnetic complex. Many Berkeley scientists and engineers went to Oak Ridge to assist in the construction and operation of the production plant.

In August, the plant began to operate. Initial positive results were followed by major disappointments. Then, Oppenheimer reported that the plant would have to produce three times more U-235 than had been thought necessary. Modifications were made to the plant and it was design was repeatedly refined.

Proceeding on a parallel track, Edwin McMillan, Glenn Seaborg and others of their colleagues at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory advanced a separate route to a nuclear explosion. Sifting through the swarm of radioactive species that fission produced, McMillan discovered something that behaved much like uranium, but that was new. By the nature of its radioactivity, he identified it as a new element, the 93rd in the periodic chart, and named it neptunium. Following up on the discovery, McMillan determined that mixed in with the neptunium was another new element. But before he could pinpoint its chemistry, he departed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work on the development of radar, an urgent war-time project.

Back in Berkeley, Glenn Seaborg picked up the ball. Seaborg and colleagues confirmed the discovery of the 94th element, plutonium. Within a month, Seaborg and company discovered that plutonium was fissionable, that it might sustain an explosive chain reaction. Years later, in 1951, McMillan and Seaborg were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their discovery of these first transuranic elements.

Racing to stay ahead of the Germans, a production plant was built for plutonium in Hanford, Washington. Like the U-235 plant in Tennessee, by June, 1945 it had produced barely enough fissile material to construct a nuclear bomb.

At that point, two designs existed for such a weapon, one using U-235, and the other, plutonium. Confidence was higher that the U-235 bomb would actually detonate; the plutonium bomb had a trigger mechanism thought to be of dubious efficacy. The decision was made to use the plutonium bomb for the first major test, but to save the U-235 for the real thing. On July 16, 1945, a desert test, code-named Trinity, successfully was performed in New Mexico.

Lawrence witnessed the fearsome desert test. Subsequently, in advice to the secretary of war, he recommended that rather than drop the atomic bomb on populated areas, a demonstration be conducted to persuade the Japanese to surrender. After discussion, he changed his mind, agreeing that the Japanese would not respond to a benign demonstration. By August 15, the U-235 fueled weapon had demolished Hiroshima, the plutonium-fueled weapon had extirpated Nagasaki, and Japan had submitted its unconditional surrender, ending the war in the Pacific.

Berkeley Lab's wartime contributions extended beyond the production of fissionable bomb material. John Lawrence, brother of the laboratory's founder, had started Donner Laboratory circa 1936. Treating a patient with leukemia, he administered a radioactive isotope of phosphate. It was the first time that a radioactive isotope had been used in the treatment of a human disease and the beginning of a career-long interest for John Lawrence. He became known as the father of radio-pharmaceuticals. Today, his laboratory is considered the birthplace of nuclear medicine.

During the war, John Lawrence and colleagues helped pilots deal with the consequences of high-altitude flying. Pressurized cabins did not exist at that point. The Donner Laboratory used radioactive isotopes of inert gases to study decompression sickness and other maladies. These tracer studies brought fundamental contributions to the understanding of the circulation and diffusion of gases. This research led to the development by the laboratory's Cornelius Tobias of aircraft oxygen equipment. Also developed as a result of this work were a parachute-opener, and methods to measure human circulation.

Numerous advances were recorded during this pioneering era of nuclear medicine at the laboratory.

People suffering from polycythemia vera, a rare disease characterized by an over-abundance of red blood cells, were treated with doses of radio-pharmaceuticals. It was the first disease to be controlled with radioisotopes. Hyperthyroidism was treated and diagnosed through the first use of radioiodine.

John Lawrence and the laboratory also pioneered in protecting people from radiation.

John Lawrence once recounted how early radiation safety criteria developed. "Paul Aebersold and I first put a rat in the cyclotron chamber about 1937. After the cyclotron had run," said Lawrence, "I crawled back in there to see how the rat was doing. When I opened the canister, the rat was dead. It scared all the physicists. I later learned that the rat died of suffocation, not radiation, but I didn't spread that news around. The physicists became much more interested in radiation protection after that. Soon the cyclotron was heavily shielded. And the word got around about radiation hazards, because we reported some of our early findings in a paper presented at a meeting in Buenos Aires."

After World War II, the Radiation Laboratory made the transition to basic research. Between 1946 and 1949, 70 percent of its contracted work was nonmilitary. Free of the demands of war, laboratory personnel were intent on maintaining a leading role in experimental nuclear physics as well as in accelerator design. The 184-inch cyclotron, which was completed in 1942, became the centerpiece of research. In addition, they developed an electron synchrotron, a proton linear accelerator, and the Bevatron. When completed in 1954, the Bevatron could accelerate protons through four million turns in 1.85 seconds. At journey's end, they had traveled 300,000 miles and developed 6.2 GeV of energy.

The laboratory's medical group, the Donner Laboratory, gained federal funding to continue its prewar work in medical diagnosis, instrumentation, and therapy. Other work led down completely new avenues. The study of lipoprotein metabolism began at the laboratory.

The relationship between heart disease and cholesterol had been suggested in the early 1900s. But little was known about the nature of the relationship, and the source of blood cholesterol remained unknown. Then John Gofman brought a new technique to bear on the problem, ultracentrifugation. He and graduate student Frank Lindgren discovered that for some odd reason, some of the blood proteins floated rather than sank in the centrifuge tube. Analysis of these floating proteins revealed they contained cholesterol and other lipids, and the researchers realized they had isolated lipoproteins. This breakthrough opened the door to further understanding of the link between lipoproteins and heart disease. Subclasses of lipoproteins were identified. And, Gofman and Lindren were able to determine that the ratio of high density to low density lipoproteins is a strong indicator of heart disease risk.

Another new area of research involved the study of organic compounds labeled with carbon-14. Melvin Calvin used carbon-14 and the new techniques of ion exchange, paper chromatography, and radioautography. Working with his associates, they mapped the complete path of carbon in photosynthesis. In 1961, Calvin's work was recognized when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Then, in August, 1949, the Soviet Union startled the world, detonating an atomic bomb. Edward Teller, a Los Alamos Laboratory scientist, campaigned to develop a thermonuclear weapon, what Teller called the superbomb, and President Truman approved the project.

Work toward development of what became known as the hydrogen bomb proceeded, but Teller became frustrated with the rate of development at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory. Convinced that a second weapons laboratory was needed, Teller lobbied the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1952, the Atomic Energy Commission granted Teller's request, establishing a Livermore Laboratory as a branch of the Berkeley-based University of California's Radiation Laboratory. About an hour's drive from Berkeley, it was located at a deactivated naval air station near the little town of Livermore.

The Livermore Laboratory remained a branch of the Berkeley facility until that administrative arrangement ended in 1971. Until then, Livermore did most of the applied science work including weapons development, the Pluto project to develop nuclear rockets and the Plowshares project which proposed to create peaceful uses for nuclear weapons. This division of labor between Berkeley and Livermore allowed the Berkeley laboratory to reconcentrate on basic nuclear science. Beyond that, it resulted in the diminishment and ultimate elimination of all classified research at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley.

Ernest Lawrence died in 1958. The two laboratories subsequently were renamed as the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory-Berkeley, and the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory-Livermore. Despite sharing Lawrence's name, all administrative ties between the two laboratories were severed in 1971 by the governing University of California Board of Regents. Later, the facilities were renamed and today are know as Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory or Berkeley Lab, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Currently, Berkeley Lab is home to multiple interdisciplinary groups working in divisions that include (as of November 1994) chemical sciences; earth sciences; energy and environment; materials sciences; life sciences; human genome; structural biology; accelerator and fusion research; Advanced Light Source; nuclear science; physics; engineering; environment, health, and safety; and information and computing sciences.

Big Science, for which the laboratory is best known, continues on the grand scale. The laboratory has begun a major new initiative in materials sciences, emphasizing advanced materials development. At the heart of this endeavor is the Advanced Light Source. The most sophisticated accelerator ever to be built in Berkeley, its construction began in 1987. Completed in 1993, it operates as a national research facility.

An electron synchrotron, the machine is capable of boosting the energies of electrons to about 1.5 billion electron volts. Using special magnets called wigglers and undulators, this unique accelerator will be able to generate laser-like beams of soft x-ray and ultraviolet light 10,000 times more brilliant than any light source now available. Unseen realms of sciences will be illuminated by this fantastic light. The Advanced Light Source serves as a microprobe for studying the atomic structure of materials, a camera than can freeze-frame chemical reactions at twenty-trillionths of a second, a microscope than can safely peer inside living cells, or a tool that can fabricate electronic microstructures with features smaller than a hundred-thousandths of an inch. Additionally, the Advanced Light Source can be used to create three-dimensional x-ray holograms of structures, including those of a living cell.

Rivaling the scope of possibilities posed by the Advanced Light Source is another relatively new laboratory project, the deciphering of the human genome.

The U.S. Department of Energy named the laboratory as one of its Human Genome Centers to undertake this project. The project, which involves a number of cooperating institutions around the world, is considered to be the largest scientific undertaking in the history of the life sciences.

Within the nucleus of each of the some hundred trillion cells that compose a human body is a "recipe book" of sorts. The book contains hundreds of thousands of individual recipes, organized into 46 chapters, that together comprise the instructions for making an individual human being. The recipe book is called a genome, and is written in the "genetic code," a language that can be used to describe all life on Earth. The ability to decipher the genome -- it's been called the "Holy Grail of Biology" -- could become the most powerful medical and biological research tool ever conceived. Many health problems have been linked to a breakdown in the genetic process including cancer, heart disease, and more than 3,000 other afflictions. Being able to read the human genome is a precursor to the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of genetic-linked afflictions.

Berkeley Lab teams life scientists, computer scientists, and instrumentation engineers to develop new technologies for faster, less expensive means of mapping the 300,000 genes and sequencing the some six billion nucleotides the compose the human genome. The Lab also is developing new database management techniques. Beyond the expected benefits to human health, the ability to read the genetic code should be a boon for all biologically related research, especially agriculture and the bio-technology industry, which has its hub in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In the physics division, a major focus of the high-energy physics work is the design, construction, and operation of particle detectors, instruments which record the results of high-energy collisions generated by accelerators. Physics Division scientists made major contributions in the creation of the world's largest detectors, the Collider Detector facility and the D-Zero facility, designed for use at the Fermi National Laboratory's Tevatron, the world's highest energy accelerator.

The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center uses two other detectors designed by Berkeley Lab, the Time Projection Chamber and the Mark II. These detectors have recorded data that raise questions about a theory of why the number of solar neutrinos detected is only one third of what physics models predict. According to the theory, a type of WIMP (weakly interactive massive particle) conducts energy to the surface of the sun, cooling its core, which results in fewer solar neutrinos. But experimental results at Stanford analyzing collisions between electrons and their antimatter counterparts showed no particles with properties that fit the proposed WIMP.

Berkeley Lab remains in the vanguard of medical research. John Lawrence and his associates discovered that different tissues in the human body displayed a proclivity for different radioactive isotopes and they used this preference for disease diagnosis. Researchers continue to develop more sophisticated radiotracers that disappear from the body within seconds, allowing larger doses to be administered and tests to be modified and repeated.

The laboratory is a world leader in biomedical imaging. A variety of imaging techniques being refined at the laboratory allow physicians to look inside the body of a patient without resorting to a scalpel. In some cases, medical imaging "sees" that which even a surgeon's eye cannot. Life sciences researchers are employing imaging techniques to study diseases of the brain and heart. Using a combination of positron emission tomography, single photo emission computer tomography, and nuclear magnetic resonance, new insights have been gained about Alzheimer's disease. The disease afflicts one out of every four elderly Americans, causing their minds to degenerate. Studying glucose metabolism and the patterns of blood flow to the brain, researchers discovered that the hippocampus becomes atrophied early in the course of the disease. The hippocampus plays an essential role in memory and learning.

Research is the lifeblood of Berkeley Lab, but its mission includes assuring that there will be a next generation of talented, trained minds to draw upon. The traditional, cooperative relationship between the laboratory and the Berkeley campus makes education an almost inevitable point of focus for the laboratory. More than 600 graduate students conduct thesis research at the laboratory. Additionally, enrichment programs for select high school and college students are offered as are programs for science teachers. To deal with the ongoing growth of these programs, the Center for Science and Engineering Education has been established.

Besides working with students and educators, the laboratory has strengthened its ties to industry. Increased emphasis has been placed on technology transfer. Disseminating information to industrial scientists and expanding its patent and licensing activities has resulted in handsome dividends to the nation.

Too, the laboratory is seeking more collaborative efforts with U.S. industry. Currently, the Center for Advanced Materials is working with industry to develop plastics that are stronger than steel and semiconductor materials that are faster than silicon.

The Center for Building Science has tackled the problem of the wasteful use of energy. Windows leak a tremendous amount of heat from buildings, immensely escalating the nation's energy bill. Scientists have developed a new type of window that leaks no more heat than a solid insulated wall. Additionally, staggering energy savings are possible through improved lighting. Lighting uses about 20 to 25 percent of U.S. electric energy. The nation's lighting bill could be halved through use of new, inexpensive, compact, screw-in fluorescent bulbs, solid-state ballasts, and other lighting improvements invented at the laboratory.

Once an institution where high energy physics dominated all else, Berkeley Lab's missions since have multiplied across the spectrum of science. As the questions posed by science have evolved over the decades, the laboratory has adapted. Ernest Lawrence's interdisciplinary approach -- physicists, biologists, physicians, and chemists working together -- has made this adaptation possible. Berkeley Lab's interdisciplinary teams are its link to the past and its bridge to the future.

Author's note

The information in this report is drawn from a number of sources. Principal among them is a history of the laboratory, "Lawrence and his Laboratory: Nuclear Science at Berkeley," by J.L. Heilbron, Robert W. Seidel, and Bruce R. Wheaton, the laboratory's annual report to the University of California Board of Regents, and the institute's quarterly magazine, the "Research Review."