Lawrence’s faith, foresight gave Laboratory confidence to find success after falteri

Aug. 3, 2001

Lawrence’s faith, foresight gave Laboratory confidence to find success after falteri

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Our Laboratory rightly and proudly carries the name Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Without Ernest Lawrence’s foresight and help, the second weapons Laboratory would not have come into existence. Beyond that, Ernest provided crucial assistance to the Laboratory during its early years of operation.

The Laboratory was founded in early September 1952, and began at once to design and test novel ideas about nuclear and thermonuclear explosives. Barely six months later, the Laboratory conducted two tests of small nuclear devices in Nevada, and the following year, we had third and fourth larger tests in the Pacific. Unfortunately, all of the first three tests failed, and we were aware that the upcoming fourth test might also fail.

On each disappointing occasion, Ernest came out to Livermore and listened to our results and their interpretation. Even on the third occasion, he took no position in public. But when he and I rode back together to Berkeley, I suggested that the remaining fourth shot should be called off. Montgomery Johnson had rapidly worked out the reason for the third failure and gave convincing arguments that the fourth would also fail. Maintaining preparations for the test while waiting for appropriate weather is expensive, and that money caused by the delay should not be wasted.

To my surprise, Ernest refused to make the decision. Accepting my positive statements about the quality of the people at Livermore, he proposed that I take the first plane to the Pacific to persuade the two people who were responsible for the remaining test, Herb York and Harold Brown, to call it off.
That was a difficult assignment, but I was overjoyed with it. Ernest thereby demonstrated that he had unqualified confidence in the Laboratory, supported the leading Laboratory scientists, and wanted them to determine the future course of our work. What was needed at that time was encouragement, and that is what Ernest gave.

Indeed, I promptly took a plane to the Pacific and spent half an hour convincing Herb York that we should call off this test and start again. Together, Herb and I went to talk with Harold Brown, who, as a good scientist, stuck to his idea that we should go ahead. But after an hour of listening to our arguments (which were really the flaws that Montgomery Johnson had found), he agreed that the second part of the experiment would go no better than the first.

Yet, not much more than a week later, in the face of all that failure, Ernest, through his attitude and encouragement, had completely rejuvenated the spirit at Livermore. His only question was: What had we learned? Indeed, we had been too quick in accepting new ideas. We should convert the post-mortem program to a pre-mortem program, where a committee would do its best to predict in detail any reasons for failure. (That committee was set up and most happily, the early failures in the Pacific were the last of their kind.)

All this illustrates the remarkable nature of the leadership that was characteristic of Ernest O. Lawrence. Lawrence was exclusively and effectively interested in two qualities in those who served in his laboratories: ability and enthusiasm. When he found those qualities in people at the Laboratory, Ernest gave those people his wholehearted support. The administrative methods Ernest Lawrence used were justified to a remarkable degree by the accomplishments of his laboratories.