Big Science | by Michael Hiltzik

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik
(Simon & Schuster, 2015, 512 pages)

When I saw this new book sitting on the display shelf, I had to check it out. I’d read a couple of books on the Manhattan Project and atomic bombs, and Ernest Lawrence’s name kept popping up. I only knew that he was a key scientist involved in the Manhattan Project and he won a Nobel Prize for inventing the cyclotron.

This book covers Lawrence’s professional career, not so much about his personal life. I enjoyed learning more about his contributions to nuclear physics, his leadership in establishing “Big Science,” and the birth of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. It’s a treat to read about other extraordinary scientists whom Lawrence worked with on the Manhattan Project. Among them was Arthur Compton, a Nobel laureate, who served as Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis for eight years.

Chapter 13 covers the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge Tennessee which I know some about. It’s fun to read about it from the views of Lawrence and his 100+ PhD physicists from Berkeley. Here’s a fun story: In a week long competition, the high school diploma workers outdid the PhD physicists in adjusting the knobs and optimizing production. The workers were trained to follow the instructions; whereas the scientists questioned and investigated the minor fluctuation of their meters (271).

Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron not only revolutionized nuclear physics, it also paved the way for medical research and diagnostics. The cyclotron is a machine that accelerates particles. For example it can produce F 18, a radioisotope, which is used in PET scans. The first commercial medical cyclotron was installed in 1941 at Washington University in St. Louis.

I found this book to be well researched, fast-paced and engaging. If you are interested in World War II or nuclear physics, give this book a try.

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