Ernest O. Lawrence was one of the giants of 20th-century physics. The inventor of the “cyclotron,” a circular particle accelerator, Lawrence ushered in an era of big machines, big physics, big budgets — Big Science, in short. And that came with ups and downs. I’ve recently finished a review for Science of Michael Hiltzik’s new Lawrence biography, Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. The full review is online but behind a paywall (if you want a copy, get in touch with me), but I am allowed to post the unedited version that I originally submitted, which in this case is about twice the size of the printed one, so maybe it’s interesting as an essay in its own right (so I may flatter myself). I found it hard to cram the story of Lawrence, and this book, in a thousand words (and brevity has never been my strength), because there is just so much going on and worth commenting on.
Lawrence featured early into my education. I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, which means I was in Lawrence country. His laboratory literally perches above the campus, looking down on it. In various buildings on campus, it is not uncommon to come across a large portrait of the man. And any geeky child in northern California visits the Lawrence Hall of Science numerous times in the course of their education.
As a budding historian of science, what I found so incongruous about Lawrence was the way in which he embodied something of a paradox at the heart of particle physics. High-energy particle physics is for the most part a pretty “pure” looking form of science, trying to pull-off very elegant experiments with the most abstract of physical entities, and making the experimental evidence jibe with the theoretical understandings. When people want to point to evidence of objectivity in science, or to the places where theory gets vindicated in a very elegant way, they point to particle physics. And yet, to do these experiments, you often need big machines. Big machines require big money. Big money gets you into the realm of big politics. And so this very elegant, above-it-all form of science ends up getting tied to the hip of the military-industrial complex during and after World War II. How ironic is that?
As you can pick up from both the published and draft review, I had mixed feelings about Hiltzik’s book. I think people who have never read anything about Lawrence before will find it interesting though potentially confusing, because it bounces around as a genre. One can’t really tell what Hiltzik thinks about Lawrence. Half of the time Hiltzik seems to want to make him out to be the Great Hero of 20th century science. (Sometimes this gets hyperbolic — Lawrence was a big character, to be sure, but he was still of his time, and it does some historical injustice to claim that everything related to Big Science necessarily is laid at his door. To claim that Big Science was “a solitary effort,” as Hiltzik does, is as self-contradictory as it is untrue.) The other half of the time, though, Hiltzik is pointing out what a huge jerk he could be, how bad of a scientist he could be, and how he sullied himself with some of the worst sorts of political engagements during the Cold War. Everyone gets on Edward Teller for being a far-right, pro-nuke, anti-Communist jerk, but even Teller thought Lawrence could be an extremist when it came to these things.
This ambivalent mix — Lawrence as great, Lawrence as terrible — never gets resolved. One could imagine it being talked about as two sides of the same coin, or some sort of synthetic whole emerging out of these two perspectives. But it just doesn’t happen in the book. In my own mind, this is the somewhat Faustian result of Lawrence’s “cult of the machine” (as I titled my review), where the Bigness required for his science ended up driving extremes in other parts of his life and politics as well.
Serious historians of 20th-century physics will find little new in Hiltzik’s book, either in terms of documentation or analysis. He relies heavily on secondary sources and the archival sources he does consult are the standard ones for this topic (e.g. the Lawrence papers at UC Berkeley). The book also contains several avoidable errors of a mostly minor sort, but the kinds of misconceptions or misunderstandings that ought to have been caught before publication (some of which I would like to imagine would jump out to anyone who had read a few books on this subject already). I did not mention these in the formal review, because there was really not enough space to warrant it, and the book never hinged on any of these details, but still, it seems worth noting in this more informal space.1
That aside, the book reminded me of one of the strangest aspects of Lawrence’s relationship with the bomb — whether he thought it was a good idea to drop one on Japan without a warning. As I’ve discussed before, the question of whether a “demonstration” should be made prior to shedding blood with the bomb was a controversial one on the project. A Scientific Panel composed of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur H. Compton, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence were asked to formally consider the question in the June of 1945. They formally recommended that the bomb be dropped on a city without warning: “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”
But there’s potentially more to it than just this. Case in point: in the archives, one finds a letter from Karl K. Darrow to Ernest Lawrence, dated August 9th, 1945. Darrow was a friend of Lawrence’s, and a fellow physicist, and a noted popularizer of science in his day. And this is an interesting time to be writing a letter: Hiroshima has already occurred and is known about, and Nagasaki has just happened (and Darrow may or may not have seen the news of it yet), but the war has not ended. This period, between the use of the bomb and the cessation of hostilities, is a very tricky one (a topic Michael Gordin has written a book on), because the meaning of the atomic bomb had not yet been cemented. That is, was the atomic bomb really a war-ending weapon? Or just a new way to inflict mass carnage? Nobody yet knew, though many had uncertain hopes and fears.
August 9th is also a tricky period because this is around the time in which the first casualty estimates from Hiroshima were being received, by way of the first Japanese news stories on the bombing. They were much higher than many of the scientists had thought; Oppenheimer had estimated them to be around 20,000, and they were hearing reports of 60,000 or higher. For some, including Oppenheimer, they saw this as a considerable difference with respects to how comfortable they felt with the attacks.
This context is relevant to making sense of the Darrow letter. The archival document is hard to read, and in some places illegible, so I’ve included a transcription that I typed up from the best of my reading of it. The import of it is pretty easy to take away, though, even with a few phrases being hard to read. Here is an excerpt of the key parts:
This is written to you to put on the record the fact that you told me, on August 9, 1945, that you had presented to the Secretary of War by word of mouth the view that the “atomic bomb” ought to be demonstrated to the Japanese in some innocuous but striking manner before it should be used in such a way as to kill many people. You made this presentation in the presence of Arthur Compton, Fermi, Oppenheimer and others, and spoke for about an hour. The plan was rejected by the Secretary of War on the grounds that (a) the number of people to be killed by the bomb would not be greater in order of magnitude than the number already killed in the fire raids, and (b) an innocuous demonstration would have no effect on the Japanese. […]
I think that it is not far-fetched nor absurd to conjecture that in time to come, people will be saying “Those wicked physicists of the ‘Manhattan Project’ deliberately developed a bomb which they knew would be used for killing thousands of innocent people without any warning, and they either wanted this outcome or at least condoned it. Away with physicists!” It will not be accepted as an excuse that they may have disapproved in silence. We do not excuse the German civilians who accepted Buchenwald while possibility disapproving in silence.
I think that if the war ends today or tomorrow or next week, this sort of criticism will not be heard for a while, and yet it will be heard eventually — and particularly it will be heard if at a time should come when some other power may be suspected of planning to use the same device on us. In other words, if the use of this weapon without forewarning has really brought quick victory, this fact will delay but will not indefinitely prevent the emergence of such an opinion as I have suggested. It may then be of great value to science, if some scientist of very great prominence has already said that he tried to arrange for a harmless exhibition of the powers of the weapon in advance of its lethal use.2
There is a lot going on in this letter. First, it makes it clear that Lawrence and Darrow had a discussion about the demonstration matter right around the time of the Nagasaki bombing. It is also clear that Darrow came away with the impression that Lawrence was deeply unsure about the logic of bombing without warning. Now the amount of pontificating by Darrow makes it seem like Darrow might be reading into what Lawrence told him more than Lawrence said — Darrow’s concerns are not necessarily Lawrence’s concerns. But it does seem clear that Darrow thinks he is setting something into the record that might be useful later, and that even if the war ended soon, there were going to be doubts to be contended with, and the fact that Lawrence was worried about using the bomb might somehow be exculpatory.
Darrow’s letter was received on August 10th (so it is stamped), but it isn’t clear when Lawrence read it. He did not reply until August 17th, 1945, by which point hostilities with Japan had ended. This is a big thing to point out: the Darrow-Lawrence conversation, and original letter, took place at a time when it wasn’t clear whether the bombs would actually be credited with ending the war. By August 17th, Japan had already pressed for an end of the war and had credited the atomic bomb in part with their defeat.3 If Lawrence ever did have doubts, they were gone by August 17th:
In reply to your letter of August 9th, you have the facts essentially straight, excepting that I didn’t believe I talked on the subject of the demonstration of the bomb as long as an hour. I made the proposal briefly in the morning session of the Secretary of War’s committee, and during luncheon Justice Byrnes, now Secretary of State, asked me further about it, and it was discussed at some length, I judge perhaps ten minutes.
I am sure it was given serious consideration by the Secretary of War and his committee, and gather from the discussion that the proposal to put on a demonstration did not appear desirable […] Oppenheimer felt, and that 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.
In view of the fact that two bombs ended the war, I am inclined to feel they made the right decision. Surely many more lives were saved by shortening the war than were sacrificed as a result of the bombs. […]
As regards criticism of science and scientists, I think that is a cross we will have to bear, and I think in the long run the good sense of everyone the world over will realize that in instance, as in all scientific pursuits, the world is better as a result.4
To me, this letter reads as something of a kiss-off to Darrow’s doubts — and maybe to doubts Lawrence himself might have once held. Darrow recalls Lawrence telling him it was an hour-long discussion, and a major conflict between the soulful Lawrence and the unfeeling others. In Lawrence’s post-victory recollection, it becomes a 10-minute talk, duly taken seriously but not that hard of a question to answer, and in the end, the ends justified the means, neat and tidy.
So where lies the truth? Was Lawrence a doubter at the time of the Nagasaki bombing, only to lose all doubts after victory? Was Darrow projecting his own fears onto Lawrence at their meeting? I suspect something in between — with a second bomb so rapidly dropped after the first, Lawrence and Darrow might have both been wondering if these weapons would really end the war (much less all war), if they weren’t just a new-means of old-fashioned mass incineration. Maybe Lawrence exaggerated, or gave an exaggerated impression, of his debate over the demonstration.
One interesting piece is that the story of “doubts” can, as Darrow implied, be made exculpatory without necessarily calling into question the wisdom of the bombing. That is, if the story is about how the scientists really didn’t want to use the bomb, but couldn’t see a better way around it, then you get (from the perspective of the scientists involved) the best of both worlds: they still have souls, but they also have justification. This is how Arthur Compton presents the meeting in his 1956 book, Atomic Quest, which takes more the Darrow perspective of a fraught Scientific Committee, Ernest Lawrence as the final hold-out, but with “heavy hearts” they recommend direct military use.5
J. Robert Oppenheimer, for his part, later said he had “terrible” moral scruples about the dropping of the bomb, of killing at least 70,000 people with the first one, though, notably, he never said he regretted doing it. He did, however, think that physicists had “known sin” and required an active role in future policy regarding these new weapons, if only to keep the world from blowing itself up. Lawrence parted ways with his former friend and colleague after World War II, remarking that “I am a physicist and I have no knowledge to lose in which physics has caused me to know sin” and chastising those scientists (like Oppenheimer) who thought that they ought to be getting involved with policymaking, as opposed to research — or bomb-building.
If Lawrence had doubts, he left by the wayside once the promise of victory was in the air, and he happily and seemingly without misgivings hitched himself permanently to the burgeoning military-industrial complex. He was part of the anti-Oppenheimer conspiracy that led to the 1954 security hearing, he worked closely with Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss to attempt to scuttle attempts at test bans and moratoriums, he pushed for greater quantities of bigger bombs, he sold out colleagues and friends, participating in McCarthyist purges with gusto. He was also the inventor of the cyclotron, a physicist of great importance, and one of the creators of the Big Science approach to doing research. These are not incompatible takes on a complex human being — but when we celebrate the scientific accomplishments, we do history poorly if we forget the parts that are arguably less savory.
- A short list of the serious errors that jumped out at me follows. Page 227: Hiltzik says that Hanford (as a site) could only produce half a pound of plutonium every 200 days. That this is a misunderstanding should be pretty obvious given that they managed to come up with 27 lbs of it (for Trinity and Fat Man) by late July 1945 despite starting B-Reactor in late 1944. I don’t know where the 200 days figure comes from, but the Hanford reactors could get 225 grams (about half a pound) of plutonium for every ton of uranium they processed, and each reactor was designed to process 30 tons of uranium per month at full power (though it took several months for the plutonium to be extracted from any given ton of exposed uranium). Because there were three reactors, that means that optimally Hanford could produce about 20 kg (45 lbs) of plutonium per month. In practice they did less than that, but half a pound every 200 days is just wrong, and if true would have made two of the World War II bombs impossible. Page 292: The book gets the information about the Trinity core geometry wrong — it says it is a hollow shell that was “crushed into a supercritical ball.” Rather, the Christy core was a mostly solid core (there was a small hole for the initiator) whose density was increased by the high explosives. Hollow shell designs were considered, and were later used in the postwar, but the wartime devices did not use them. This is one of those errors that won’t die — often repeated despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Page 386: Hiltzik refers to the Soviet test Joe-4/RDS-6s as a “fizzle.” This is incorrect terminology and implies that it did not achieve its target yield. It was not a staged thermonuclear weapon, but it was not a fizzle — it did what it was supposed to do, and was not a disappointment in any way. Page 405: Hiltzik, perhaps by reading too much Ralph Lapp (who was very smart but sometimes got things wrong), doesn’t seem to understand how the so-called “clean bomb” would have worked. The higher the proportion of the weapon that comes from fusion reactions as opposed to fission reactions, the smaller the amount of fallout that would result. The contamination power of a weapon is not related to its total yield so much as its fission yield. The area of contamination does relate to the yield (so a 10 megaton weapon with only 1% of its yield from fission does spread those fission products over a wide area), but the intensity of the contamination does not (the level of radiation would be extremely low compared to a “dirty” hydrogen bomb that derived at least half of its power from fission). One can object that the “clean bomb” was at best a cleaner bomb, and doubt both its wisdom and the sincerity of its proponents, but the idea itself was not a hoax. Page 416: Hiltzik says that Hans Bethe “flatly refused” to join the hydrogen bomb work. This is not correct. Bethe initially refused, and then later joined the thermonuclear project at Los Alamos and made several important contributions (to the degree that he is sometimes referred to as the “midwife” of the hydrogen bomb). Bethe’s wavering position on this is very aptly discussed in S.S. Schweber’s In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist. There are a few other nitpicks (e.g. saying that “the test ranges remained silent” from 1958-1961… only true if you ignore France), but those are the ones that really stood out as outright errors. The most irritating misrepresentation (not strictly a factual error so much as an omission) is the fact that while Lawrence’s Calutrons were indeed an important part of the overall enrichment system used to make the fuel for the Hiroshima bomb (though not the only part), they were shut down in the early post war because they were not as efficient as the gaseous diffusion method. One would not get that impression from Hiltzik’s book, and it is relevant inasmuch as evaluating the importance of Lawrence’s method to the war — it was a useful stop-gap, but it was not a long-term solution. [↩]
- Karl K. Darrow to Ernest O. Lawrence (9 August 1945), Ernest O. Lawrence papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0724362. [↩]
- Whether the bomb did or did not actually sway the Japanese high command is not a completely settled question, but does not matter for our purposes here — we are talking about what Lawrence et al., might have thought, not internal Japanese political machinations and motivations. [↩]
- Ernest O. Lawrence to Karl K. Darrow (17 August 1945), Ernest O. Lawrence papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0724363. [↩]
- Arthur Compton, Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 239-241. [↩]