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Ernest Orlando Lawrence – The Father of Big Science

by Kathy Chambers on Fri, April 14, 2017

Ernest Orlando Lawrence
Ernest Orlando Lawrence.  Image credit:

To celebrate 70 years of advancing scientific knowledge, OSTI is featuring some of the leading scientists and works particularly relevant to the formation of DOE, OSTI, and their predecessor organizations and is highlighting Nobel Laureates and other important research figures in DOE’s history.  Their accomplishments were key to the evolution of the Department of Energy, and OSTI’s collections include many of their publications. 

Ernest Orlando Lawrence’s love of science began at an early age and continued throughout his life.  His parents and grandparents were educators and encouraged hard work and curiosity.  While working on his Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry at the University of South Dakota and thinking of pursuing a career in medicine, Lawrence became influenced by faculty mentors in the field of physics and decided instead to pursue his graduate degree in physics at the University of Minnesota.  After completing his Master’s degree, he studied for a year at the University of Chicago, where, Lawrence “caught fire as a researcher,” in the words of a later observer.  After Lawrence earned his Ph.D. in physics at Yale University in 1925, he stayed on for another three years as a National Research Fellow and an assistant professor of physics.  In 1928, Lawrence was recruited by the University of California, Berkeley as associate professor of physics.  Two years later, at the age of 27, he became the youngest full professor at Berkeley.

In 1929, Lawrence developed the basic principle of operation of the cyclotron, the first particle accelerator to achieve high energies.  While the first cyclotron model was small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, he kept improving and enlarging his cyclotrons until they had outgrown campus housing.  Lawrence’s work in this area led to a new era of physics research, culminating in giant cyclotrons and synchrotrons, the production of hundreds of new isotopes, the artificial disintegration of all known elements, and the release of nuclear energy and its uses for war and peace.

Lawrence was awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the invention and development of the cyclotron and for results obtained with it, especially with regard to artificial radioactive elements.”  The award established Berkeley’s preeminence in high-energy physics worldwide.  Lawrence’s successful campaign for government sponsorship of large science programs and his advocacy for large-scale, collaborative, interdisciplinary research and the establishment of national laboratories eventually earned him the moniker, “Father of Big Science.”  His Radiation Laboratory became an official department of the University of California with Lawrence as its director.

Lawrence made vital contributions to the Manhattan Project during World War II.  Based on his cyclotron, he invented the calutron, which was designed for the electromagnetic separation of uranium-235 used in the atomic bomb.  He was also heavily involved in launching the MIT Radiation Laboratory and its contributions to radar, as well as underwater sound laboratories, according to Lynn Yarris, author of “Ernest Orlando Lawrence–The Man, His Lab, His Legacy.”

After the war, Lawrence devoted himself to basic scientific research.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Lawrence to travel to Geneva, Switzerland in 1958 to assist in the negotiation of a proposed Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union.  Lawrence became ill while in Geneva and was flown back to the U.S., where he died on August 27, 1958, at the age of 57.

Within a month of his death, the Regents of the University of California voted to rename in his honor two of the university’s nuclear research facilities, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Additionally, the Atomic Energy Commission recommended that President Eisenhower establish the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award to honor Lawrence’s legacy of scientific discovery.  This award, first given in 1960, now honors mid-career U.S. scientists and engineers for exceptional contributions in research and development supporting the Department of Energy and its mission to advance the national, economic and energy security of the United States.  Today, a total of 232 Lawrence Award winners are listed on the DOE Office of Science website.

Ernest Orlando Lawrence Memorial Award
Page last updated on 2017-09-08 12:37

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Kathy Chambers
Technical Writer, Information International Associates, Inc.