Europe’s Large Hadron Collider cost more than $10 billion, paid for by a consortium of nations. Its success owes much to charismatic physicist Ernest Lawrence (1901-1958), who invented the cyclotron, the Collider’s ancestor.
Los Angeles Times business columnist Hiltzik (The New Deal: A Modern History, 2011, etc.) attempts to combine Lawrence’s biography with the revolutionary consequences of his invention. He succeeds superbly with the biography. After 1900, scientists explored the atom by bombarding targets with feeble streams of particles from radioactive elements such as radium. Researchers yearned for means to produce more particles with higher energies. In the late 1920s, Lawrence conceived of an electromagnet and oscillating electric charge that accelerated protons around a device the size of a breadbox. After several years’ labor, mostly by brilliant, often unpaid graduate students, and huge (for the 1930s) expense, a functioning cyclotron began spewing out particles. By the early ’30s, Lawrence was famous; in 1939, he won the Nobel Prize in physics. During World War II, he was a central figure in the Manhattan project and the development of the atom bomb. Afterward, he became a proponent of the hydrogen bomb and a polarizing Cold War figure, although his advocacy of bigger cyclotrons remained undiminished. Except for an epilogue, Hiltzik ends with Lawrence’s death in California. Decades later, “Big Science”—i.e. wildly expensive, often government financed—continues to flourish. The author disapproves of its proliferation for the usual unconvincing reason—that it diverts money from more worthy endeavors, such as small science, education, and social programs. In fact, when massive projects such as America’s superconducting supercollider are cancelled, the money often never goes to worthy programs; it usually disappears.
A fascinating biography of a physicist who transformed how science is done.