All of history is about little Renaissances. Important discoveries — sometimes not seemingly that large on their own — from which contemporary knowledge leapfrogs in a significant way.
Big Science (Simon & Schuster) is an in-depth biography of one such discovery: that of the single invention that launched the modern military industrial complex. From Big Science:
As physicist Robert R. Wilson has written, research on this scale cannot be achieved by solitary efforts: “It is almost as hard to reach the nucleus by oneself as it is to get to the moon by oneself.”
Yet the creation of Big Science was itself a solitary effort The birth of this new way of probing nature’s secrets can be traded to the day nearly nine decade ago in Berkeley, California, when a charming and resourceful young scientist with a talent for physics and perhaps an even greater talent for promotion pondered a new inanition and declared, “I’m going to be famous!”
His name was Ernest Orlando Lawrence. His invention would revolutionize nuclear physics, but that was only the beginning of its impact. It would transform everything about how science was conducted, in ways that still matter today. It would remake our understanding of the basic buidling blocks of nature. It would help win World War II. Lawrence called it the cyclotron.
You and I, however, would come to know Lawrence’s invention — or, rather, a descendant of it — as the Large Hadron Collider and, in its way, it changed everything. Even though Lawrence’s peers widely acknowledged the important role he played in the development of science, his name has largely slid out of the history books today. Until now, of course. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Michael Hiltzik (The New Deal; Colossus: The Turbulent, Thrilling Saga of the Building of Hoover Dam) has turned his laser sharp view on Lawrence and his contribution and come away with gold.
One would not think the biography of a relatively unknown physicist would be so compelling, but only part of that is due Hiltzik’s (very real) talents. He was also working with stellar material. Lawrence won the Nobel prize for physics and was, at one point, deeply involved with the Manhattan Project. After the war, he advocated in favor of the development of the hydrogen bomb and an end to the arms race he had helped bring about.
Ernest Lawrence was, arguably, one of the most important scientists of the modern age. Hiltzik has done a remarkable job of bringing his somewhat shadowy figure to delightful life. ◊