‘Atom Smasher’ taught science world to think big

Aug. 3, 2001

‘Atom Smasher’ taught science world to think big



He was called the “Atom Smasher.” The man who “held the key” to atomic energy. Before the nation knew of the Fat Man and Little Boy, there was the “little man and his giant cyclotron.”

In reality, Ernest Orlando Lawrence was not a little man — in physical size as well as scientific stature. Standing over six feet tall and with a “shock of blond hair,” most of his colleagues and friends agreed that it was impossible to miss the South Dakota native when he entered a room.

One hundred years after his birth — the actual date is Aug. 8, 1901 — colleagues still remember E.O. Lawrence as the man who revolutionized science through his work and the manner in which he pursued that work. Lawrence integrated both theoretical scientists and engineers into his projects. While this was a foreign idea in the 1930s, it paved the way for the breadth seen at modern national laboratories.

“He saw physics as a kind of adventure,” Herb York remembered. York first worked with Lawrence on the Manhattan Project, and went on to become the director of the Livermore Radiation Lab, which was, of course, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in its early years. “He wanted to do ‘big physics,’ the kind of work that could only be done on a large scale with a lot of people involved.”

“He cared about his staff like they were family,” Director Emeritus John Foster said, recalling a story about his days as a graduate student under Lawrence. “I had a very fast motorcycle at the time, and I rode it everywhere — including across the country. One day, I was parking and Lawrence walked up to me and asked me how long I’d been riding this motorcycle. I told him, ‘About 100,000 miles.’ And he said, ‘That’s too many mean free paths. Get rid of it,’ ” Foster laughed, explaining that a mean free path is the path a particle takes before it collides with something.

“He was looking out for me,” Foster said. “He didn’t want this kid getting killed. So I got rid of the motorcycle.”

It was this caring attitude that nearly led Lawrence to medical school — he graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1922 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. However, toward the end of his time at the university, Dean Lewis Akeley pressed Lawrence to pursue physics, and Lawrence responded with enthusiasm. He received his master’s from the University of Minnesota and his doctorate from Yale University — both degrees in physics.

Beginning of ‘Big Physics’
After spending three years on the Yale faculty, Lawrence was offered a position at the relatively young UC Berkeley campus as an associate professor of physics. While the move from well-known Yale to young upstart Berkeley was considered a waste of an otherwise brilliant career by many of his colleagues, Lawrence wanted to make a name for himself. He started to do so when he was made the youngest full professor on the faculty by age 29. He married Mary “Molly” Blumer in 1932, and the two of them returned to Berkeley where Lawrence was heading up the new Radiation Lab on campus.

“I hated Berkeley at first,” Mary Lawrence once remarked in looking back on her first days in California. “I was used to the East Coast, and everything in Berkeley seemed dry and cramped compared to that.” But by the time Lawrence was offered a job at Harvard University a few years later, Mary Lawrence was sufficiently rooted in Berkeley to hope he would turn the job down.

“Molly was involved in [Lawrence’s] work in the classical sense of providing support for him,” York said of Lawrence’s wife. “But she always seemed to know what was going on at the Rad Lab — she kept up with what was happening.”

Foster remembered Mary’s presence as well.

“One night, probably around 1:30 in the morning, I was in the lab working,” Foster explained. “And Lawrence and Mary were walking around as if it were 1:30 in the afternoon, just talking about some of the work going on. It seems strange now, but that was the way we worked.”

The invention that would rocket Lawrence to international fame started out modestly as a sketch on a scrap of paper. While sitting in the library one evening, Lawrence happened to glance over a journal article by German physicist Rolf Wideroe. Lawrence did not actually read the article — “It was in German, and I didn’t read German well,” he recalled — but was intrigued by one of the diagrams. The idea — of producing the very high-energy particles required for atomic disintegration by means of a succession of very small “pushes” — put forth in the article was not new, but Wideroe was the first one to apply it successfully.

In his work, Wideroe had used two hollow cylinders, lined up on the same axis. Lawrence sketched a series of such cylinders, but decided that the necessary length of the apparatus would be too great to work well. He next thought of the possibility of using a curved path, and noted this by writing down a very simple mathematical equation. The essential features of the cyclotron were on paper minutes after he saw the diagram.
The next morning Lawrence told his colleagues that he had found a method for obtaining particles of very high energy, without the use of any high voltage. The idea was surprisingly simple, but Lawrence double-checked his theory with physicists from Yale to make sure he had not overlooked a critical detail.

“My father worked with Lawrence when he was building the small cyclotrons in the early ’30s,” Foster said. “The first model [of the cyclotron] was made out of wire and sealing wax and probably cost $25 in all.”

And it worked — when Lawrence applied 2,000 volts of electricity to his makeshift cyclotron, he got 80,000-volt projectiles spinning around. He had discovered a way to “smash” atoms, and in doing so he unwittingly paved the way for the nuclear weapons program that would follow a decade later.
“Lawrence couldn’t have foreseen nuclear weapons. He invented the cyclotron as a tool for pure science,” York explained. “He had always known that atomic energy could be useful, but no one could get it out of the atom. He solved that problem.”

Lawrence’s biggest problem after his early successes was getting the funding to build another, larger cyclotron. A nine-inch cyclotron was built, and an 11-inch model followed, which accelerated hydrogen particles to over one million volts.

Up to that point, all of Lawrence’s experiments had been conducted in a lab with standard equipment. When he began planning larger cyclotrons, the physics department at Berkeley moved him into another building — this became Lawrence’s famed Radiation Laboratory.

“The construction of the larger [cyclotrons] meant moving from the realm of physics into engineering,” Professor Raymond Birge, then the chairman of the Berkeley physics department, remembered. “Most physicists would have stopped with what they knew, but not Lawrence. He fished for the big ones.”

The big ones
Lawrence soon realized that his cyclotron could be used for more than “pure” physics. He worked alongside medical doctors, chemists, biologists and engineers to create uses for the radioisotopes that the cyclotron was churning out.

“Without a doubt, Lawrence’s finest achievement was inventing the cyclotron and creating the ‘Rad Lab’ in the process,” York said. “The cyclotron impacted future scientific advances, and the Lab created a new way to do that science.”

By early 1939, the “Rad Lab” at Berkeley was the model that was being emulated around the world — according to Lawrence, this interdisciplinary approach was how to do research on a grand scale. He had brought engineering and science together and created new technology with new applications, and it was in looking at the impact of those applications that the Nobel Committee traced a path back to the cyclotron.

As the year wore on, speculation grew that Lawrence would indeed capture the Nobel Prize in physics. He preferred to wait until the announcement was official, even telling newspaper reporters that he thought fellow physicist Enrico Fermi would win the prize.

On Nov. 10, 1939, Lawrence slipped out of his office to play tennis, and to get away from all the congratulatory phone calls coming in — he said that he felt awkward taking congratulations when he wasn’t sure yet that he’d won the Nobel Prize. When he returned from the courts, he was informed that there was another call for him — this one from Stockholm, Sweden.

“I guess I’d better take that,” he told waiting reporters. Lawrence was told — officially, this time — that the Nobel Prize in physics was his. But even in a statement to the press made that afternoon, Lawrence had his eye on bigger and better science.

“Naturally, I’m pleased and honored, especially for the increased opportunities this will make possible,” he said. “I am sure it will accomplish one of its real purposes in encouraging fundamental scientific research.”

Both York and Foster agreed that winning the Nobel Prize only made Lawrence more focused on doing bigger, better science.

“Winning something that big changes you. Lawrence was already a self-confident person, and this just made him even more self-confident,” York said.
“I think that the Nobel helped Lawrence continue to attract the best people to work with him,” Foster said. “It also helped him persuade the men in Washington, D.C. to support his ideas and his work, and that became very important during World War II.”

At the time of the Nobel announcements, World War II had just broken out in Europe. Instead of the usual gala surrounding the presentations, the Nobel committee found themselves with very few winners to congratulate. Lawrence did not attend the ceremony because he deemed it unsafe to travel, and two German winners were not allowed out of the Reich to accept the awards. Lawrence was presented his award in a ceremony in Berkeley in 1940, and it wasn’t until 1951 that he traveled to Stockholm to finally give his Nobel lecture.

Aiding the war effort
Lawrence had no time to rest on his laurels after winning the Nobel Prize. He and several other prominent scientists felt that it was only a matter of time until the United States became involved in the war. Lawrence helped establish the radar program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then returned to the West Coast to work on the sonar development program for anti-submarine warfare in 1941.

But while doing that work, Lawrence was also growing concerned about the slow progress of the atomic weapons project, and by March 1941, he was ready to ask questions about the lack of direction shown by some of the atomic weapons committees.

“The stakes envisaged are fantastically high,” he said to project leaders. “There is a tendency to emphasize the uncertainties, and this, to my mind, is very dangerous. I feel strongly that anyone who hesitates on a vigorous, all-out effort assumes a grave responsibility.”

That grave responsibility was not something Lawrence was going to pass by — he immediately began working with teams of scientists to produce plutonium. He also converted some of his smaller cyclotrons into mass spectrographs that could separate natural uranium from U-235. By the end of the year, his method was working so well that he received permission from the University to convert his 184-inch magnet into a spectrograph.

Lawrence’s ideas, in conjunction with the work of Robert Oppenheimer, were one of the major factors that helped create the Hiroshima bomb — a bomb which he felt was necessary for multiple reasons.

“The atomic bombs will surely shorten the war, and let us hope that they will effectively end war as a possibility in human affairs,” he said in 1945, mere months before the first bomb was dropped. “The successful realization of the atomic bomb is a great human achievement. It is a striking example of fundamental science and technical teamwork on a vast scale.”

Fundamental science, technical teamwork
After the war, Lawrence was convinced that his “Rad Lab” needed to continue its weapons research in support of Los Alamos, but he was out of space in Berkeley. After looking at several options for expansion, Lawrence eventually chose an abandoned naval air station in the Livermore valley.
“I remember Lawrence came out to the Livermore site once, and we were riding along in his Cadillac convertible,” Foster recalled. “And out of nowhere, he said, ‘Here we are in the best country in the world, in the best state, and in the best part of the state.’ ”

In 1952, the Livermore Radiation Lab was in business — the business of sustaining the American nuclear program. Lawrence split
his time between Berkeley and Liver-more while York oversaw the daily operations on the Livermore site. Edward Teller also remained in Livermore and worked with scientists there to sustain the nuclear program.

“The Lab was really born out of a controversy about whether we should be pursuing nuclear weapons,” Foster said of the early days. “We had to establish a lab that was balanced, that focused on several objectives but had all the science and engineering tools to pursue them.”

“Lawrence was motivated, in part, by this feeling that America needed to remobilize science in the cause of national defense,” York said. “When we all got together, we were reading from the same music – the goal was to create a lab that would develop nuclear weapons.”

The early days were stressful for the Livermore team; they faced pressure from the government to produce nuclear research and tensions were evident between Livermore and Los Alamos.

“When we ran our first tests, in Nevada and Bikini, it didn’t go well,” York remembered. “And some of those Los Alamos scientists filled the air with laughter at our expense.”

There were also personality clashes among the founders of the nuclear program. Oppenheimer continued to feel that the United States should not pursue nuclear weapons, and that was a point of contention between Lawrence and his old friend “Oppie.”

“They were the closest of friends, but they were so very different,” Mary Lawrence once said, remembering her husband’s relationship to Oppenheimer. “Oppie was a theorist, and Ernest was very pragmatic. But Ernest never tackled a project without talking it over with Oppie.”

Lawrence continued to oversee both sites of his Radiation Lab despite declining health. He had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 1952, and tried to decrease his activity. But according to York, that was not Lawrence’s style.

“He was so involved at both labs that he knew every nook, every project going on,” York remembered. “He wanted the employees to focus on science, so he took care of all the administration at the Lab, and that probably contributed significantly to his poor health.”

Lawrence spent the years up to his death in 1958 trying to control the nuclear arms buildup that he helped begin. President Eisenhower asked him to serve on a three-man committee negotiating arms control with the Russians in Geneva, but Lawrence was forced to leave the talks early when the colitis flared up again. He died just days later in Berkeley, with his wife at his side. One newspaper reporter wrote, “He could not escape the deep sense of obligation, the vision of the important things to be done, and the conscience that compelled him to be involved.”

Vision of the important
“I think if Lawrence were to visit the Lab today, he’d take the same ‘gee whiz’ attitude that he took 50 years ago,” York said. “His lab has evolved in a perfectly natural way — the scope is wider, but the science is still an adventure, and that’s an important attitude to maintain here.”

“Almost 50 years after the beginning of this Laboratory named in his honor, we are still following the multidisciplinary philosophy that epitomized Ernest Orlando Lawrence,” said Lab Director Bruce Tarter. “Through Lawrence’s methods of building technical teams with focused objectives, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has become one of the premier institutions in the world.”

Within months of his death, the University of California Regents renamed both the Berkeley Lab and the Livermore Lab in honor of Lawrence. Congress made Livermore a national lab in 1980.

“E.O. Lawrence was a pathfinder not just for Lawrence Livermore and Berkeley laboratories,” Tarter said of the accolade. “He created the model for large-scale science throughout the world.”

“I remember one time working on an ion source. [Lawrence] came around one day and said, ‘Look, I know this is important to you, but I have this other thing I’d like you to take a look at,’ ” Foster said, recounting one of his meetings with Lawrence. “It was in later years that I came to realize that if you want someone to stop doing something that is not going to be a winner, what you have to do first is create what it is that you want them to do. Then you go to them and say, ‘Look, I’ve really got a problem, and I wonder if you could help me.’ Lawrence didn’t tell me that he thought my project was going to flop. He redirected me in such a way that I wasn’t discouraged or upset about changing projects.”

In 1958, just weeks after his death, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission asked President Eisenhower to establish the E.O. Lawrence Memorial Award for contributions in the field of atomic energy. Eisenhower replied that “such an award would be most fitting, as a recognition of what Dr. Lawrence has given to our country and mankind, and as a means of helping to carry forward his work through inspiring others to dedicate their lives and talents to scientific effort.” Foster and York were among the first winners of the award.

“Lawrence was a man who took bold steps and set challenging objectives,” Foster said. “He attracted the best people, gave them a good climate to work in. And I guess he provided us with a lot of the science, didn’t he?”