Daily Archives: September 2, 2015

** Big Science by Michael Hiltzik


I wonder whether I’m the one who loses interest midway through books, rather than the other way round… I found the first half of Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex fascinating, as it retraces the life of Ernest Lawrence from humble origins in South Dakota and a disastrous early academic career (earning him a D in electricity and magnetism! Great inspiration for low-GPA students!) to a fulgurant rise to Yale and UC Berkeley, where the hill behind the main campus is dotted with features bearing his name, including an early version of the cyclotron that made him famous, earned him a Nobel prize, and earned several more to colleagues who used future versions to discover a raft of radioactive elements.

The second part of the book recounts Lawrence’s engagement with the war effort, specifically the Manhattan project, a story that has been told in many other books (see herehere and here), and post-war projects in which Lawrence may have lost his way, blinded by his desire for ever-larger machinery, which required massive government grants. There are many stories about funding of universities and labs, which make corporate politics sound like kindergarten intrigues. Other reviewers praise the clear explanations of the physics involved int he story; I suspect that I am not the only reader who could not quite grasp the supposedly simple explanations!

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