When we think of science today, we think of Big Science, like the Large Hadron Collider and the Human Genome Project.

That makes sense, Americans like big and bold, but that was not always the case. It used to be thatg science was a lonely occupation and asking for money was a negative. There was one man who turned science from being a solitary, somewhat modest endeavor into Big Science. His name was Ernest Lawrence and he was a nuclear science researcher at Berkeley. Yes, Berkeley, arguably the most anti-science town in America now, was put on the map by nuclear power. He created the cyclotron, the ancestor of today's modern accelerators.

When he arrived, Berkeley was just a little known cog in the University of California system and the U.C. system was not the bloated $6 billion behemoth it is now. Back then, if you were not going to do science in the northeast, you were going to do it at Caltech - but Lawrence quickly changed that with a combination of aggressive salesmanship, a zeal for putting out papers with bold claims, and promoting an evangelical culture about physics, which would inspire all of his researchers as they got jobs in new labs as other schools scrambled to catch up.

Lawrence didn't start out as a nuclear researcher, his B.S. degree was in chemistry in 1922. He was still in school when Marie Curie visited America in 1921, with the New York Times declaring "Mme. Curie Plans to End All Cancers" (1) to accept an incredibly valuable, but tiny, supply of radium. 17 years after he graduated with that Bachelor's degree, he would get the Nobel prize in Physics. Along the way he would show theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer how to be practical - so practical Oppenheimer would guide America's effort to build the first atomic bomb, even as Lawrence developed the electromagnetic separation of uranium-235 that made it possible.

After World War II, Lawrence campaigned for even more government funding - and so Big Science was born and government began to have the control over science research it retains now.  He succeeded beyond even his own expectations, bringing money to Berkeley even as the seeds of their anti-science discontent were being sown after the Second World War

Berkeley may not be proud of that science legacy now but the rest of culture still is. Even today, in order to evoke applied science excitement, the government will declare something "A Manhattan Project of X" to try and get the public interested. Yet the man who made Big Science happen and who was once so famous he has a chemical element (2) and two labs named after him (3) is essentially unknown to the public now.  Maybe it's because there are no pictures of him with his tongue sticking out, maybe it's because America has been down on nuclear science since President Clinton and Senator John Kerry celebrated killing it off in 1994.

It's hard to say. But Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complexby Michael Hiltzik is a fitting tribute and it may help to bring him back to the public eye.


(1) Which she made them retract - the New York Times was not a great source for science then and is not much better now.

(2) Number 103, Lawrencium

(3) Lawrence Livermore was created as a weapons-development addition to Los Alamos. 

Hank Campbell is the President of the American Council on Science and Health. He can also be reached on Facebook, Twitter and more.