Father of Big Science

Ernest Lawrence won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939.

It was 7:30 pm on a Monday evening as students, professors and visitors filed into the LeConte Hall on University of California’s Berkley campus. Showing up promptly at 7:25 pm and sitting in his large, red leather chair was Dr. Ernest Lawrence. He started teaching and doing research at the University of California in 1928 at the age of 27, where he invented the cyclotron; a feat that would win him the Nobel Prize in 1939.

Lawrence was nearly always in the Radiation Lab (Rad Lab) himself observing and participating in the nuclear physics experiments using the cyclotron and other instruments. After a few years in California, he designated Monday nights as the time when the Rad Lab would be shut down so everyone could gather for the Journal Club.

Lawrence looked over his agenda and started the meeting by welcoming visitors. His friend, Robert Oppenheimer would often visit the club, and spur lively debates with Lawrence. Most of the time was devoted to learning about current research going on. Lawrence would not publicize what the subject of the meeting would be before they began, but the presenter could be a graduate student or a visiting luminary. In all cases, they would present the research and discuss the merits, application, and future of the research as they saw it. By 1936, almost all the Journal Club meetings featured research being conducted at the university.

The Journal Club audience wasn’t just Lawrence’s graduate students studying nuclear physics. Like the Rad Lab itself, the Journal Club attracted chemists, biologists, medical scientists, and engineers. It wasn’t meant to be an exclusive club, but an opportunity to learn and discuss with varied perspectives. This dynamic was rare in the early twentieth century, but Lawrence brought people together to achieve unique objectives.

Lawrence was brilliant at science but equally special was his ability to combine people and institutions for a combined vision. One example of this was in 1931 when Lawrence’s associate Dr. Milton Stanley Livingston made a change to the design of the cyclotron. The change helped to make an advance in the machine that got their team closer to the end goal.

“There appeared to be no ‘pecking order,’ nobody really in command,” Molly Lawrence once said, describing the dynamic of the Rad Lab. “…a suggestion from the newest and youngest recruit would be considered and acted upon with as much respect as one proposed by [Livingston] or [Lawrence].”

Another example of Lawrence’s ability to combine teams was the Rad Lab itself. While the Physics department took budget cuts due to the recession,  the Rad Lab had up to 60 people working around the clock, with no more than 10 of them receiving money from the university. Lawrence was instrumental in getting grants, stipends and additional funding from a dozen sources. It allowed the Rad Lab to keep the knowledge flowing while the rest of the nation’s state universities were reeling.

Lawrence was a brilliant scientist, but he is considered by many as the father of Big Science. He believed that to achieve new levels of understanding, he needed to bring minds, technology, and money together. Before his time, and during much of it, scientists often worked in small groups developing their own instruments on a small scale. While their ingenuity was admired, Lawrence saw the combined efforts of many as the way to achieve much more. His methods of assembling large and varied teams helped to launch nuclear science and space exploration in ways that were unimaginable just years before.

For you:

Leaders of the S-1 project, consider the feasibility of the 184-inch cyclotron at Berkeley, March 29, 1940. Left to right: Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton, Vannever Bush, James B. Constant, Karl Compton, Alfred Loomis.

There is a tendency for people who lead or have the power to discredit the opinions of others “below” them. The truly great leaders, like Lawrence, are able to put their pride on the shelf and listen to the team they have assembled. To have a team is good. To lead a team is better. To trust your team enough to listen to their perspective and then move forward together is best.

Think about the people around you. When was the last time you considered the opinion of someone “below” you? When was the last time your opinion was considered by someone “above” you? What was the result in team morale and effectiveness?

When you look out of two eyes, you have two different views. Your brain puts them together and it gives you depth perception. Asking your team for their perspective is like opening your other eye. You don’t have to take their opinion just because it’s offered, but to consider both perspectives will help you see things more clearly.


I started writing short stories in elementary school, starting with a short story about twin track athletes. In college, I wrote for the college newspaper and studied communications. My first job out of college was with a magazine as an assistant editor, where I started a comic strip called City Boy. My first published work, was a short essay entitled, Dream with Me, published in “The Art of Service” booklet put out by the Thayne Center for Service and Learning. I also published a three part series for families called “Family Parables – Wise Man Foolish Man.” This set is designed to be used by families to create discussion and learning as a family. I soon will publish my first novel, Love Like Alzheimer’s, a story of a family that is learning to love deeper as their beloved grandmother struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

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