Gregg Herken is an emeritus professor of modern American diplomatic history at the University of California, and author of “Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller.” His most recent book is “The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington.”

Big Science
Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex

By Michael Hiltzik

Simon & Schuster.
512 pp. $30

Most accounts of the building of the atomic bomb begin with the letter that Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt in August 1939, warning about “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” The letter was actually the inspiration of physicist Leo Szilard, who believed that FDR would be more likely to listen to Einstein. What these versions overlook is that the bomb could have — indeed, almost certainly would have — been ready long before it was dropped on Hiroshima, in August 1945, had Szilard gone to Ernest Lawrence instead of Einstein. If the atomic bomb had been successfully tested in, say, 1943, it probably would have been dropped on Germany, not Japan. “The Germans owed a lot to Szilard,” Isidor Rabi, another atomic scientist, told me in a 1984 interview.

Rabi’s comment gives some idea of the importance, and the persuasive power, of physicist Ernest Orlando Lawrence, an often-overlooked figure in the story of the development of nuclear weapons and the focus of Michael Hiltzik’s biography, “Big Science.” The inventor of the cyclotron, the original atom-smasher, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1939, Lawrence is perhaps best known as the originator and promoter, if not the inventor, of big science: large, collaborative and expensive scientific research projects.

‘Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex’ by Michael Hiltzik (Simon & Schuster)

Lawrence’s Radiation Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley was the prototype and subsequent model for big science before World War II. The Rad Lab built particle accelerators of ever-increasing size and power. While Lawrence’s “proton merry-go-round” started out small (the first models resembled “whisky flasks run over by a truck”), they grew to be enormous. The warehouse-size, 184-inch “he-man” cyclotron would provide the proof of concept for Lawrence’s calutron, a mass spectrograph used in the industrial-scale electromagnetic separation of uranium. The U-235 that made up the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima came from Lawrence’s calutrons.

Because Lawrence was an experimentalist, not a theorist, some physicists considered him a second-rate scientist: “a mechanic,” sniffed one theorist. But even Lawrence’s critics conceded that he had a first-rate intuition and that his skill as a salesman for big science projects, especially his own, was unrivaled. Lawrence demonstrated that skill in importuning private foundations and University of California President Robert Sproul for the money to build his big machines. Early on, he perfected the art of playing one prospective patron against another. When Sproul objected that one of Lawrence’s schemes represented “a pretty large undertaking,” Lawrence cheerfully agreed, adding, “It probably could be done at Harvard.” He got the money. (Sproul lamented that Berkeley had become not so much a university with a cyclotron attached as a cyclotron with a university attached.)

Ironically, Lawrence’s success as a brilliant promoter probably contributed to his laboratory’s initially lackluster reputation for scientific innovation. Despite having the biggest and most expensive machines, the Rad Lab missed making several key breakthroughs in particle physics, including the discovery of induced or artificial radioactivity. “It was there waiting for us,” one of Lawrence’s experimenters wailed. “His preoccupation with improving the cyclotron condoned sloppy and inattentive experimental work,” Hiltzik writes. On the most important breakthrough, however — the realization that atomic fission could be used to make a stupendously powerful weapon — Lawrence’s intuition paid off.

Lawrence is most interesting when put in the context of his relationships with other important figures of the time. His friendship, and later rivalry, with Berkeley physicist Robert Oppenheimer is a case in point. Together, the two were what has been described as a perfect marriage in physics. Lawrence the experimentalist used metal shims to fine-tune the big cyclotron, but it was Oppenheimer the theorist who understood why these adjustments were necessary: because of relativistic effects. As Hiltzik puts it, “Here again, experiment preceded theory!” until Oppenheimer came along. Another figure in this story is Alfred Loomis, a wealthy eccentric who privately funded some of Lawrence’s research. Likewise Lewis Strauss, a vain and vindictive man who was Lawrence’s conservative ally. As a member of the postwar U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Strauss cynically used Lawrence in a successful campaign to destroy Oppenheimer’s reputation.

The author of several books on the interplay of society and technology, Hiltzik is best at making the science of Lawrence’s lab accessible to the reader. Otherwise, “Big Science” is mostly a synthesis of previous books on the same topic; it breaks no new ground in the area of nuclear history. Hiltzik also does not dwell on what might be called the dark side of big science: the fact, for example, that big secrecy was usually the price of government funding. After Hiroshima, Lawrence no longer had trouble finding support for his research, since the Department of Defense became his wealthy patron. “We ran it with a big barrel of greenbacks,” observed one of Lawrence’s “boys” about Cold War funding for the Radiation Laboratory. In 1952, the Rad Lab was joined by another laboratory to also bear its founder’s name. Lawrence Livermore became the country’s second weapons-design laboratory, competing with Los Alamos, the home of the atomic bomb.

Ironically, the virtual inventor of big science seemingly lost faith in both the process and the product near the end of his life. Lawrence died prematurely in 1958, at age 57, following an operation to deal with his chronic ulcerative colitis. By then, it’s likely that he had come to regret the price he paid for the empire he built: his complicity in the defrocking of his onetime friend Oppenheimer. Even so, as Hiltzik points out, big science today has become too big, too complex and too expensive to fit the old paradigm: “The future of Big Science appears to depend on industry, whose . . . priorities are very different from those of universities, research foundations, and government.”