Ernest O. Lawrence and the Atomic Age

I’ve been reading Big Science, the Michael Hiltzik biography of Ernest O. Lawrence, a towering but controversial figure of mid-century American physics. It’s the story of an ambitious genius who in the Thirties made many of the right technical bets to get the world on the road to nuclear fission bombs and electric power reactors, creating a lasting infrastructure of scientific and engineering jobs, many but not all defense related, that became, in effect, his vast, Godfather II-like empire, his own personal postwar Disneyland of dark science.

That’s what Hiltzik means by “Big Science”, not just in Berkeley, Livermore, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos, but in every existing and new university or industrial science lab; the popular image of the cantankerous old doc with an erlenmeyer flask was over and the age of labs the size of General Motors assembly buildings had begun.

Calling Lawrence the Walt Disney of American science is simplistic, but not an inaccurate comparison. Like Disney, Lawrence didn’t invent his field, but he might as well have, improving it to the point of developing powerful, popular new uses and markets for it. As he got older, and more and more of a control freak, he was more feared for his power than remembered for the exciting early discoveries of his younger years. He was one of the best-known mass market public faces of his industry, always good for a Times-worthy quote. And both Lawrence and Disney were establishment guys, broadly speaking, one-time rural poor boys who in power would be in creative opposition to the radical new people and ideas that would appear later in their careers.

The first half of Big Science is basically about the career effects of the scientific tool that made Lawrence’s name, the cyclotron, which could smash atoms, slice them for inspection, or actually in some rare and special cases, transmute them into other elements, an elusive dream since the days of the alchemists. Ernest O. Lawrence would get the 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics for perfecting and advancing the cyclotron, but it wasn’t a one-man job by any means. He was willing to give other academics free use of his discoveries, even generously handed out blueprints, but he wanted the credit.

Something that Hiltzik reminded me that I hadn’t put in perspective before: After the famous August 1939 Einstein letter to FDR, drafted by Leo Szilard, hand carried by Alexander Sachs, his appointees quickly set up a very credible committee to study whether or not uranium had actual military uses, and if so, did it have uses in the near enough future to be worth investigating?

Here’s the surprise: it took two years after FDR said, do something about this, before the American government took the first real steps towards actually doing it. After all, America wasn’t even in the war yet. It is thought that the military eagerly seized a chance to corrupt bloodless academia with the Bomb, but if anything, it was the opposite; increasingly edgy scientists kept telling the politicians to get a skeptical US military in gear. The Briggs Committee, after a promising fast start, gathered papers and did very little to offer more than sketchy ideas. The corresponding British wartime scientific committee on the Bomb sent an urgent report to their American contacts in the spring of 1941. America was still neutral, in theory if not in military fact, and it was largely that report, full of specifics how to do the job, that prodded Washington to immediately make a far larger effort to investigate. Even then, with something of a head start, it took well into the spring of 1942 before anything tangible had been created, other than microscopically tiny bits of poison conceived at astronomically high prices.

This is another Hiltzik time reminder: today we think of Oppenheimer simply as “the chief of the atom bomb project”, but that’s not accurate: he only became lab director, a key leader but not the overall project boss, in late 1942, three years after the Einstein letter to FDR and more than a year after the Manhattan Project shifted into full gear.

It wasn’t Oppie, but his political and military bosses and thousands of other nationwide workers who created a secret structure the size of the peacetime automobile industry and managed to hide it in the federal budget, who made secret deals to buy up most of the world’s then-known uranium and ship it to the US, who created and refined their magic, deadly byproducts into bomb material, and who studied the other end of the process, taking the raw explosive devices that Los Alamos could supply and equipping them with reliable dropping and aiming systems to make them into usable weapons.

In other words, Oppenheimer wasn’t an inventor, he was something closer to an orchestra conductor. Later, feeling that Oppie was being ungrateful and a little hypocritical, Lawrence turned away from his former friend, now vaulted ahead of him on the cover of Life Magazine as “America’s Top Atomic Thinker”, on other as “The Inventor of the Nuclear Age”.

Lawrence was no doubt rankled by Oppenheimer’s fame and ambivalent pose of being the one truly agonizingly sensitive, morally decent man associated with the Bomb, and among Los Alamos colleagues, he wasn’t the only one who felt amused and resentful over Oppenheimer’s public, rather self-serving handwringing.

There is something vaguely Nixonian about Lawrence’s petty resentments, an odd contrast between a Nobel Prize winner of Olympian mental capabilities and the same person, seemingly obsessed with minor slights and a spiteful memory of everyone who ever Done Him Wrong. Like Dan Aykroyd’s Nixon imitation (“Memoirs of Richard M. Nixon, nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents”) there’s also a money angle.

I think that’s why EOL (as his staff called him) later got involved in the truly unexpected field of trying to beat mighty RCA and upstart CBS at the decidedly non-atomic art of perfecting a usable color TV tube: for once, he just wanted to out-and-out make a stack of bucks, although by then simply being the King of Physics paid very, very well thanks to Lawrence’s decades of empire-building. He defended his dalliance with Paramount Pictures by pointing out that a cathode ray tube, like his beloved cyclotrons, accelerated an energy beam at a target, synchronized with a moving magnetic field. That was true; but having been accustomed to picking up the phone and asking Washington for another $30 million when a project stalled, Ernest O. Lawrence was probably not the best person to oversee a process that, if it was going to succeed, had to manufacture millions of flawless, no-troubles color TV tubes at a cost of $75 each that could be sold for $150.

Lawrence was a star of the Thirties; CBS network radio was originally going to broadcast the startup of Berkeley’s 37-inch cyclotron live, until Lawrence, disappointed, told them they’d have to postpone while problems were worked out. It’s fair to say that as a popular matinee idol of physics, EOL may have had a short reign because much of his work was necessarily incomprehensible but also because much of the value in his career was unashamedly bureaucratic, building a power base within the University of California and becoming the most prolific fundraiser in science, expertly wheeling around foundations, institutes, endowments and bequests. That stuff is invisible to the public.

We remember Oppenheimer far better for several reasons: intellectuals and the cosmopolitan Left lionized him for that sensitive, tormented attitude, even though many other Manhattan project veterans point out that not once ever did he outright disagree with or condemn the A-bombings. In photos and newsreels, Oppie has an otherworldly look that fits our conception of what a genius looks like. He bears something of a resemblance to present-day actor Jim Parsons. A shrewd producer should perform the stunt casting of starring Parsons in a Broadway revival of In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

These articles are derived from lectures, talks and web posts. Most have also been posted on