Big Science


From a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and Los Angeles Times contributor, the untold story of how science went “big,” built the bombs that helped win World War II, and became dependent on government and industry—and the forgotten genius who started it all, Ernest Lawrence.

Since the 1930s, the scale of scientific endeavors has grown exponentially. Machines have become larger, ambitions bolder. The first particle accelerator cost less than one hundred dollars and could be held in its creator’s palm, while its descendant, the Large Hadron Collider, cost ten billion dollars and is seventeen miles in circumference. Scientists have invented nuclear weapons, put a man on the moon, and examined nature at the subatomic scale—all through Big Science, the industrial-scale research paid for by governments and corporations that have driven the great scientific projects of our time.

The birth of Big Science can be traced to Berkeley, California, nearly nine decades ago, when a resourceful young scientist with a talent for physics and an even greater talent for promotion pondered his new invention and declared, “I’m going to be famous!” Ernest Orlando Lawrence’s cyclotron would revolutionize nuclear physics, but that was only the beginning of its impact. It would change our understanding of the basic building blocks of nature. It would help win World War II. Its influence would be felt in academia and international politics. It was the beginning of Big Science.

This is the incredible story of how one invention changed the world and of the man principally responsible for it all. Michael Hiltzik tells the riveting full story here for the first time.

Of particular interest to readers of World War II Today will be how the decision was reached not to conduct a “demonstration” explosion of the first atomic bomb:

Stimson’s next visit to the White House occurred on April 25, when his task was to explain the cataclysmic implications of nuclear energy to a new president “whose only previous knowledge of our activities was that of a senator who had loyally accepted our assurance that the matter must be kept a secret from him.”

President Harry S. Truman, Stimson observed with relief, accepted his new responsibility “with the same fine spirit that Senator Truman had shown before in accepting our refusal to inform him.”

Stimson did not minimize the international and political importance of the weapon. As his advance notes for the meeting stated, without robust principles in place for sharing knowledge of the bomb and placing it under control, “the world in its present state of moral advancement compared with its technical development would eventually be at the mercy of such a weapon. In other words, modern civilization might be completely destroyed… On the other hand, if the problem of the proper use of this weapon can be solved … the peace of the world and our civilization can be saved.”

Stimson’s immediate goal was to obtain Truman’s permission to establish a committee devoted to these postwar issues. He received it on the spot.

By May 1, the Interim Committee was established — so named on the assumption that Congress would appoint a permanent committee as soon as the war was over — with Stimson as chairman and Byrnes, Bush. Conant, and Karl Compton as its members. Not long afterward, Stimson named a scientific panel to advise the committee: Ernest Lawrence, Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton, and Enrico Fermi. They were all leaders of Big Science, convened to contemplate its most important creation.

The scientific panel’s role was never precisely spelled out. Conant, who had come up with the idea, thought it could serve as a conduit to the Interim Committee for the views of bomb scientists who had become restless about the implications of their work. It is doubtful that the other members agreed with that role; Compton was the only one who oversaw a lab where the scientists’ ambivalence was expressed openly.

In formal terms, the scientific panel would have the opportunity to give its advice on any subject brought before the interim committee. This appeared at the outset to be an expansive portfolio. In the event, however, both committees soon got drawn into what Conant later described as “the most important matter on which an opinion was to be recorded. This was the question of the use of the bomb against the Japanese.”

The Interim Committee met with its scientific panel for the first time on May 31 at the Pentagon, with Groves and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall in attendance. It had been three weeks since the fall of Germany, and attention was focused on Japan.

As Compton recalled the discussion, Japan “was an overpowered nation, but she was fighting desperately, unwilling to acknowledge defeat … The great danger was that the fanatical military group would retain such control of Japan that surrender would be impossible.”

The historical debate over the likely intensity of Japanese resistance and therefore the possible cost of an invasion of the home islands in Allied lives has continued to this day, but there can be little doubt that for decision makers in 1945, the magnitude of possible losses — one million lives was a not-uncommon estimate — looked horrific.

The May 31 discussion unfolded against that backdrop. Compton placed the concerns of rank-and-file scientists about the social and political implications of the bomb on the committee record, via a memo from the Met Lab’s Franck. The document warned that the use of a weapon that could kill thousands of people in a single strike would mean “moral isolation” for the United States; if America was hoping to outlaw the use of atomic weapons by international treaty, Franck wrote, their prior use would put the country in a weak position to recommend their prohibition.”

Instead, Franck proposed “a demonstration before the eyes of all the world on some barren island.” This was by no means the first time the idea of a nonmilitary demonstration had been heard; in fact, it had been in the wind for years. Bush and Conant had proposed something of the sort to Stimson in September 1944: “complete disclosure” of the technology, omitting manufacturing and military details, “as soon as the first bomb has been demonstrated.”

They specified, “This demonstration might be over enemy territory, or in our own country, with subsequent notice to Japan that the materials would be used against the Japanese mainland unless surrender was forthcoming.”

But the May 31 meeting was the first time that the idea of a demonstration was placed before a decision-making body of the US government. Even so, it was presented delicately, not as part of the official agenda, and only after the committee addressed several other formal agenda items. These included America’s supposed head start on the rest of the world in atomic weaponry. (In context, “the rest of the world” meant the Soviet Union.) Compton estimated the American lead on the atomic bomb at no more than six years.

As for developing and producing the next-generation weapon, a thermonuclear bomb, Oppenheimer reckoned that would take the United States three years – not a comforting timeline for anyone concerned about the proliferation of weapons capable of menacing civilization. Byrnes, who up to then had viewed the atomic bomb largely as an abstract device useful for bargaining with the Russians, would recall that Oppenheimers astonishing figures left him “thoroughly frightened.”

When the discussion turned to the future of the American technical program, Lawrence took the opportunity to secure a foothold for postwar Big Science by lobbying for a “vigorous program of plant expansion and stockpiling” with government support. This was an idea endorsed by both Arthur and Karl Compton, who had large academic institutions of their own to nurture.

Lawrence appeared untroubled by the prospect of continued military oversight of the program, which was where Oppenheimer drew the line. Oppie thought such conditions could only stifle basic research; there was a fundamental difference, he said, between basic science and the work that had taken place at Los Alamos and the other Manhattan Project labs, which had only “plucked the fruit of earlier discoveries.” To keep American science in full flower, he asserted, what was needed was “a more leisurely and normal research environment.” On that point, he won the assent of Bush.

Then it was time for lunch. All during the morning session, Compton would recall, “it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the bomb would be used. It was regarding only the details of strategy and tactics that differing views were expressed.” Yet during the morning, Lawrence had alluded approvingly to the possibility of a nonmilitary demonstration. At lunch-time, Byrnes asked him to expand on it. “It was discussed at some length,” Lawrence remembered, “perhaps ten minutes.”

As Lawrence and Compton both recalled, the general reaction was negative. “An atomic bomb was an intricate device, still in the developmental stage,” Compton recounted the conversation. “We could not afford the chance that one of them might be a dud … Though the possibility of a demonstration that would not destroy human lives was attractive, no one could suggest a way in which it could be made so convincing that it would be likely to stop the war.”

Oppenheimer was uncomfortable with the entire discussion, for he considered the question of the bomb’s deployment to be outside the scientists’ expertise. “We didn’t think that being scientists especially qualified us as to how to answer this question of how the bombs should be used or not,” he recalled years later, taking it upon himself to articulate the sense of the entire scientific panel. “We didn’t know beans about the military situation in Japan. We didn’t know whether the invasion was really inevitable … We did say that we did not think that exploding one of these things as a firecracker over a desert was likely to be impressive.”

But as he observed in recalling the discussion, that was before they actually had exploded their firecracker, which yielded a display that turned out to be very impressive indeed.

Oppenheimer’s point made a vivid impression on Lawrence. “Oppenheimer felt, and this feeling was shared by Groves and others, that the only way to put on a demonstration would be to attack a real target of built-up structures,” he related in late August to his friend Karl Darrow. As the general explained, this narrowed the targets to cities hosting large munitions plants surrounded by worker housing.

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