Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


Big Science (Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex)

By: Michael Hiltzik

Narrated by: Bob Saouer

Michael A. Hiltzik (Author, American Journalist.)

Interesting details are revealed about the discovery of fission and the advent of the nuclear age in Michael Hiltzik’s history of “Big Science”. Hiltzik shows “Big Science” is expensive and involves large teams of scientists led by people like Ernest Lawrence.

Ernest Lawrence (Scientist,1901-1958) Lawrence died at 57 years of age.

Lawrence was born and raised in Canton, South Dakota, a rural community of less than 3,000 residents.  Lawrence pioneered American nuclear science and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939 for invention of the cyclotron.

Lawrence’s invention led to the creation of the atom bomb, and later the Large Hadron Collider.


Lawrence’s indefatigable energy, persuasiveness, personability, and equanimity gave him the ability to raise huge sums of money to assemble the largest group of physicists, engineers, and experimentalists of the twentieth century.

Lawrence touched the lives of M. Stanley Livingston, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton, James Conant, Niels Bohr, Marie Curie, Ernest Rutherford, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Vannevar Bush, and many others.

Hiltzik notes Lawrence is much more than an experimental physicist. Picture shows early version of Lawrence’s early cyclotron.

Ernest’s ability to organize a team of scientists and engineers to create the first cyclotron coalesced with Lawrence’s personality.  The cyclotron paves the way to a more precise understanding of the atom. His ability to tap into the resources and ambitions of young scientists and engineers, to convince government agencies, and private donors to contribute money for experiment creates a framework for “Big Science”.

Lawrence’s early cyclotron experiments pave the way for splitting the atom which ultimately leads to atomic blasts at Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Ernest’s younger brother, John Lawrence, became a physician. 

Ernest Lawrence worked on radioactivity with his brother as a treatment for cancer.

Impetus for the unimaginable expansion of “Big Science” is magnified by WWII.  Because of the atom bomb’s horrific consequence, the fame of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the infamous Edward Teller, become known to the world. Hiltzik explains the key role that Lawrence plays in getting Oppenheimer appointed as the science manager for the Manhattan Project (the project name for America’s rush to create the atom bomb).  Edward Teller is an early member of the team but is found to be a disruptive team player.  Teller is an outlying and brilliant theoretician with an acerbic personality, who breaks as often as he makes friendships with fellow physicists, including Ernest Lawrence.

Leslie Groves (1896-1970, General in charge of the Manhattan Project.)

The creation of the Manhattan Project required the appointment of a military supervisor.

An interesting note by Hiltzik is the relationship between General Leslie Groves and Lawrence. Lawrence, soon after meeting Groves, realizes who is in charge. Any roadblocks for funding or personnel disappear with the appointment of Groves. The two great managers complement each other and grow to respect each other’s roles in the Manhattan Project.

Hiltzik takes listeners into the aftermath of “Big Science” after the war.  Once Russia demonstrates their arrival in the nuclear bomb era, the danger of nuclear war and atomic bomb testing comes to the forefront of research. 

During the Eisenhower government years, a main concern is with the military/industrial complex and competition for nuclear superiority in the face of potential world cataclysm. 

Hiltzik addresses the dismantling of J. Oppenheimer’s reputation by Eisenhower’s appointment of Lewis Strauss as chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Strauss creates a government investigation of Oppenheimer and his early political life.  Strauss comes off as an unfair judge of Oppenheimer’s contribution to America in Hiltzik’s telling of the investigation.  One is reminded this is in the beginning years of McCarthyism.

Oppenheimer briefly joined the communist party but left it early in his career. Despite Oppenheimer’s great contribution to the creation of the atom bomb, Strauss manages to tarnish the brilliant scientist’s reputation.  Ernest Lawrence did not come to Oppenheimer’s defense.  The two scientists had different political beliefs.  Hiltzik implies Lawrence’s mid-western upbringing conflicted with Oppenheimer’s cosmopolitan life.  Both scientists respected their roles as scientists but differed in their politics.  

Lewis Strauss (Former U.S. Secy. of Commerce & Chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission)

Hiltzik’s driving theme is the importance of “Big Science” and America’s waning support after WWII. Hiltzik’s primary example is America’s failure to lead in creating a super cyclotron like that which was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).  America participated in the cost but chose not to be the lead in its creation. Of particular note today is the need for investment and leadership in environment and energy.

Though many American physicists work at CERN, research at the Large Hadron is managed by 23 member states with each state having a vote.  Members make capital contributions and pay operating expenses while making all operational decisions.  America has no vote.  Japan, Russia, and America are observers (Russia was suspended on March 8, 2022).

Since WWII, one might argue America has played catch-up in “Big Science”.  Sputnik was a wake-up call that led to America’s moon mission which arguably is the last American push for “Big Science.

After listening to Hiltzik’s book, one may ask oneself–where is the Ernest Lawrence of the 21st century that is leading a team of young scientists in “Big Science”?  Ideas are out there but America’s investment seems destined to be limited by capitalist incentives, not “Big Science” experimentation.

Author: chet8757

Graduate Oregon State University and Northern Illinois University, Former City Manager, Corporate Vice President, General Contractor, Non-Profit Project Manager, occasional free lance writer and photographer for the Las Vegas Review Journal.

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