"The Lawrence Legacy"

Lawrence Symposium
University of South Dakota
Vermillion, South Dakota
December 10, 2001

"The Lawrence Legacy"

By Robert M. Berdahl
Chancellor,
University of California, Berkeley

 

President Abbott, faculty and students, participants in this symposium, members of the Lawrence family, ladies and gentlemen: it is a great pleasure for me to be here today to help celebrate the centenary of the birth of a famous South Dakotan, Ernest O. Lawrence, with this symposium acknowledging the scientific achievements of Ernest and his brother and collaborator, John Lawrence. It is especially fitting that we are gathered on the very day of the hundredth anniversary that the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in Stockholm, for it is as a Nobel Laureate that Ernest O. Lawrence is best remembered.

I am pleased to represent the University of California, Berkeley, on this occasion, because the Lawrence brothers spent their careers at Berkeley and their names are inextricably linked to the history of the University. Ernest O. Lawrence was the first faculty member at Berkeley to win a Nobel Prize; indeed, he was one of the first faculty members in any public university in America to win a Nobel Prize. Two national laboratories, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, bear his name; both, along with Los Alamos National Laboratory, in the development of which Ernest was instrumental, are managed by the University of California. The campus in Berkeley is also proud to have the Lawrence Hall of Science, a science museum for educating school children. At the heart of the Hall is a room housing Lawrence memorabilia, including his diploma from the University of South Dakota.

I am also pleased to be here today as a native South Dakotan myself. As such, I can't help but mention a number of the coincidental connections between South Dakota and Berkeley. First, important only to me, is the coincidence that my father, Melvin O. Berdahl, graduated from the University of South Dakota in the class of 1922 with Ernest O. Lawrence. I recall the pride with which he spoke of Lawrence; I don't know whether they knew one another very well, but the class of 1922 comprised only about 40 graduates, as I recall, so they were probably acquainted. I do know that my father was also heavily influenced by Dean Akeley, of whom he always spoke with fondness and reverence. Interestingly enough, while Lawrence went off to graduate school at Minnesota, Chicago, and Yale, my father went to graduate school in Berkeley in the fall of 1922. He returned to South Dakota after a year in California, and remained here the rest of his life, while Lawrence moved to Berkeley in 1928 and remained there until his death thirty years later.

Another coincidence linking Berkeley to South Dakota is the Homestake Mine, which was developed in the early years by George Hearst, a California mining engineer, whose original fortune was built from gold mining in California. His fortune was enlarged considerably by his interest in the Homestake Mine. After his death, much of his estate passed to his widow, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who, as a Regent of the University of California, was determined to build a world-class university. Over more than two decades of her involvement with Berkeley, she contributed to the campus what would today be the equivalent of over a hundred million dollars. Interestingly enough, Berkeley's involvement with the Homestake Mine continues to this day, as Berkeley physicists are engaged in the research on neutrinos about which you will hear in the lecture by Professor Lande later today.

Thus, Berkeley owes much to the intellectual and material contributions that originated in South Dakota. I'm proud to be a latter-day participant in the connection of South Dakota to Berkeley.

The Lawrence brothers were born in Canton, South Dakota, Ernest in 1901 and John four years later. Amazingly, their next-door neighbor and boyhood friend of Ernest was Merle Tuve, who also went on to a distinguished career in physics. Like Lawrence, he contributed significantly to the American arsenal in World War II by developing the proximity fuse that played an important role in protecting Britain during the German air raids. Ernest and Merle discovered in Canton a recent MIT graduate, named Vern Kennedy, and persuaded him to teach them something about electricity, leading them to construct wireless receivers and to become early ham radio operators. Their fascination with science began early.

Ernest and John's parents were both educators and their father served as a school principal, superintendent, and later as the president of Southern State Teachers College in Springfield and Northern State Teachers College in Aberdeen. The lessons of hard-work, determination, learning, self-reliance, and service learned from their parents were core values that shaped all that they were to become. Years later, in 1969, at the dedication of a building at the Carl G. Lawrence Library in Springfield, honoring his father, John said:

Whatever recognition my father received for his services as a teacher, a high school principal, …superintendent or college president…, I know he would give equal credit to my mother. They loved their life here, they enjoyed their work, they had many friends and their joy in life came from their work in the school. The heritage that my brother and I received from them was their teaching us that happiness comes from service.

Contrasting the values of his South Dakota upbringing with those he found prevalent in the University of California in 1969, a tumultuous year of anti-war activism in Berkeley, John continued:

Finally, I can't help but comment on the great opportunity that I had here and in the other schools in South Dakota…. The humble values of hard work, integrity, belief in God and in your fellow man [are]…often not present in our larger schools and universities. In my own University of California, where I have been a professor for many years, we have a small percentage of faculty and students who seem not to believe in these basic values…. They have lost their belief in our democracy, in the Christian-Judaic system of morals. In fact, in Berkeley, many events which have damaged our University have taken place as a result of an undue influence of this group of faculty and students…over the University administration and affairs.

Perhaps we can conclude from this that you can take the man out of South Dakota, but you can't take South Dakota out of the man!

Though a serious young man --- his mother later said, "Ernest was born grown up" --- it was not until he reached the University of South Dakota, after one year at St. Olaf, that Ernest became a serious student. His brother later reported that at St. Olaf, Ernest flunked electricity and magnetism, two areas in which he later became world famous. Here at the University of South Dakota, he fell under the tutelage of Dean Akeley. Intending originally to go into medicine, under Akeley's influence, he majored in physics, then headed off to graduate school at the University of Minnesota to study under W. F. G. Swann. He followed Swann to the University of Chicago and, a year later, to Yale. At Chicago, he became acquainted with Arthur Compton, a distinguished nuclear physicist, who later said of him: "He had an extraordinary gift of thinking up new ideas that seemed impossible of achievement and making them work." At Chicago, he caught fire as a researcher. After completing his Ph.D. at Yale in 1925, he stayed on for three years as an instructor and assistant professor.

During the 1920s, physics became incredibly exciting, with its center of gravity in Europe, especially in Cambridge, Paris, and Göttingen, Germany. Berkeley was determined to become a major force in physics and began recruiting bright and promising young physicists. An offer was made to Lawrence in 1927, which he turned down; it was renewed in 1928 and, frustrated by the lack of prospects for rapid promotion at Yale, he accepted the California offer. His mentors at Yale told him and his parents who visited him there that spring that he was making a terrible career mistake. It wouldn't be the last time that Ivy League arrogance worked to the advantage of a rising public university on the shores of the Pacific. The following year, 1929, Berkeley recruited the brilliant young theoretical physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had completed his doctor's degree at Goettingen just one year after his bachelor's degree at Harvard. In Lawrence and Oppenheimer, Berkeley had secured two people who were to be leaders in experimental and theoretical physics of their generation.

Arriving in Berkeley, Lawrence decided to devote himself to the emerging field of nuclear physics; as he put it, "the next great frontier for the experimental physicist was surely the atomic nucleus." A few months after arriving in Berkeley, early in 1929, he stumbled upon an article in a German journal by Rolf Wideroe, discussing the use of cylindrical electrodes in a line to accelerate positive ions. To generate large amounts of energy in this fashion would require a long accelerator tube. Lawrence immediately thought of using only two electrodes oscillating rapidly between positive and negative charges over and over, while using an electromagnetic field to bend the paths of the ions in a circular motion between the oscillating electrodes, thus building massive voltage for acceleration. Thus was born the principle of the cyclotron, as he referred to his instrument. The first primitive cyclotron was put together, as he put it, with "sealing wax and bailing wire;" its vacuum chamber was only four inches in diameter and it could be held in the palm of his hand. It is today on display at the Lawrence Hall of Science. Lawrence kept improving and enlarging the cyclotron until, in 1939, he had a 60-inch cyclotron with a magnet weighing 225 tons. A later 184-inch cyclotron had a magnet of 4000 tons. He was a machine builder who built ever-larger research machines, ultimately requiring entire buildings to house them.

Lawrence's "atom smasher" as the press referred to the cyclotron, won him popular as well as scientific recognition. He had a genius for the popularization of his discoveries. After colleagues reported one exciting discovery, his first reaction was, "Wonderful, now can we take it to the press?" He was a young man in a hurry, constantly in motion, working day and night, enlisting his young graduate students and colleagues also to work long hours. Because the cyclotron emitted radio waves that interfered with radio transmissions, he used to sleep at home with his radio tuned to the frequency of the static created by the machine; if the static stopped, he knew the machine wasn't running and he would call the laboratory to find out why. Exuding confidence and ambition, he drew students to him like the magnets in his machine.

His achievements also drew the attention of the University. Some of his older, more traditional, and staid colleagues were inclined to resent his rapid rise and growing reputation. In 1930, on the recommendation of the Physics Department, but against the recommendation of the University-wide faculty committee, President Sproul promoted Lawrence to full professor. At age twenty-nine, Lawrence became the youngest full professor in the history of the University. In 1936, the University established the Radiation Laboratory, directed by Lawrence, and reporting directly to the President of the University. Bear in mind that these were depression years, when the University's budget suffered severe constraints; but Lawrence was always able to find the means of supporting the work of his Laboratory.

Although Lawrence and his laboratory did not discover the first artificial radioisotopes, the cyclotron made possible the production of large quantities of various radioisotopes. In the decade prior to the Second World War, scores of artificial radioisotopes were discovered at the Berkeley laboratory, including Carbon-14, Iodine-131, and tritium. It was the medical applications of these isotopes that excited Ernest's brother, John Lawrence.

John had followed Ernest's initial ambition and become a medical doctor, earning his degree at Harvard after completing his bachelor's degree here at the University of South Dakota. After Harvard, he moved to Yale, where he became an instructor in the School of Medicine. Following closely the brilliant successes of Ernest, John became interested in the use of radioisotopes and radiation in the treatment of cancer. In October 1934, he wrote Ernest:

I have read with much interest the newspaper accounts of your recent discovery and am anxious to get a reprint from you. It would seem to me that with sodium chloride radioactive, it could be injected intravenously, or intramuscularly around a tumor and thus perhaps attack cancer where it is generalized…. Let me know what you think about this. I certainly think it might possibly be worth trying on an advanced case of malignant disease, and I would like to try it.

In the summer of 1935, John came to Berkeley to conduct research on the medical applications of radiation. He injected some leukemic mice with radioactive phosphorus produced by the cyclotron and then went fishing; when he returned he found the mice improved. It was the beginning of medical physics at Berkeley. John was also more aware than were the physicists in the laboratory of the dangers of exposure to radiation, so he insisted that they undertake some experiments with the radiation produced by the cyclotron. He conducted an experiment that he described, years later, in this way:

One of the first animals that we exposed - I'm not sure that it wasn't the first one - we … placed within the cyclotron between the two poles of the magnet near the beryllium target which was being struck with deuterons (alpha particles). So Paul and I told Ernest to turn off the cyclotron because we wanted to go back and see how the rat was. Well, the rat was dead. That scared everybody because it had only been exposed for about a minute and the dose was very low. We were very scared and we then recommended increasing the shielding around the cyclotron. Later we found that the rat died of suffocation but not radiation.

John and Ernest returned to Harvard to consult John's esteemed mentor there, Harvey Cushing, the country's most eminent brain surgeon. He was dazzled by what they reported. "This field of radiation is something big," he concluded. "I think medicine now is at a threshold like the one when I was a young doctor at the time that bacteriology was discovered." In 1937, John Lawrence moved to Berkeley to build a research program in nuclear medicine. With the help of Ernest, he raised the money to build the Donner Laboratory, of which he ultimately became the director. The Donner Laboratory remains on the campus to this day, an important link between the campus and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

John Lawrence's achievements at Berkeley were remarkable and for them he was given, like his brother before him, the Fermi Award in 1983 for his "pioneering work and continuing leadership in nuclear medicine." A few of the "firsts," indicate the central role that the achievements of John Lawrence and his collaborators played in the development of his field. In 1935, he performed the first biological experiments with neutrons, determining that these particles were five-times as lethal as X-rays. This led to the first safety regulations to protect humans from the unintended effects of radioisotopes and beams of particles. In 1937, he carried out the first use of a radioisotope for the treatment of human disease. In 1939, his treatment of polycythemia vera, was the first successful treatment of a human disease with radioisotopes. The list of John's accomplishments is long.

None of these achievements however was as important and satisfying as that which occurred in 1937. Within months of John's arrival in Berkeley, he and Ernest learned that their mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer; she went to the Mayo Clinic for treatment. John went to Mayo immediately. Mother Lawrence was told that she had only three months to live. John tells the story in his oral history, in the archives at Berkeley:

So then I got on the phone with Ernest. I said, "They don't want to treat her here with radiation. How about my bringing her out and we'll talk to Dr. Stone?" We did talk to Dr. Stone and he said, "Sure, I'll take her." So I took her on the train, wheeled her across the station in Omaha. I had to change trains from Rochester. She was bleeding. She was pretty sick and I couldn't get a bedroom for her so I just got a lower berth and got her out here. She was about 67 or 68 years old then…. They started treating her through four fields…. To make a long story short, this massive tumor just started evaporating. At the end of ten years my mother finally agreed that she must be cured. It took me about ten years to convince her and she died at 83 and had the best years of her life…. It was really, really a fantastic result.

The fall of 1939 was a remarkable period in the lives of the Lawrence brothers. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War. Two days later, 200 miles west of the Hebrides, a German U-boat torpedoed the White Star-Cunard liner, Athenia, on which John was returning to the States from a scientific conference in Britain. It was the first German attack on British shipping in the war. After spending the night in an over-packed lifeboat, John was rescued by a British destroyer. And, on November 9, 1939, Ernest was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.

Because of the dangers of wartime travel, Lawrence could not travel to Sweden to accept the Prize on December 10, sixty-two years ago today, so it was awarded by the Swedish Consul General in San Francisco in a ceremony on the Berkeley campus on February 29, 1940. Professor Raymond T. Birge, Chair of the Physics Department spoke at the ceremony. He concluded by saying:

I can not close without commending the completely unselfish attitude of Dr. Lawrence toward his associates. This is well shown by his first remark on being informed of the Nobel Prize Award - namely, 'It goes without saying that it is the laboratory that is honored, and I share the honor with my co-workers past and present.'

Birge continued:

The development of the cyclotron has taken the united efforts of many most capable and willing workers, but it is the ability and the inspiration of Lawrence that have brought these workers together, and have held them together, in spite of every obstacle, until today the Radiation Laboratory represents as fine a piece of cooperative effort as exists in the annals of science.

In saying this, Birge noted something very important about the role of the Radiation Laboratory in the history of science. It may not be the first example, although it is the first example of which I am aware, of "big science," that is, of science that is conducted by a large scientific and technical staff. High-energy physics created by the Laboratory became a new way of doing physics. Owen Chamberlain, a Berkeley faculty member and also a Nobel Laureate said, "Lawrence I think of as the great promoter and enthusiast and as a rather demanding leader of the laboratory effort. I think Alvarez is right when he says that in science Lawrence to some extent invented team effort."

Both the team effort and Lawrence's Nobel Prize were important to Berkeley. It signified Berkeley's preeminence in high-energy physics, not only for the United States, but also for the world. It drew to Berkeley, at one time or another, for short or long stays, all of the great physicists in the world. It also introduced the principle of large-scale, collaborative, interdisciplinary research, which remains, in some respects, a hallmark of Berkeley's science to this day. And, important for the prestige of the University, it produced a significant number of Nobel Prizes for Berkeley faculty. In addition to Lawrence, five other Berkeley faculty members affiliated with the Radiation Laboratory were awarded Nobel Prizes: Edwin McMillan, Glenn Seaborg, Emilio Segre, Owen Chamberlain, Luis Alvarez. A sixth, Melvin Calvin, won the Nobel Prize for research on material made possible by the Laboratory. Fully one-third of the eighteen Nobel Prizes at Berkeley has been for work done in the Laboratory.

With the onset of the Second World War, Lawrence turned his attention and that of his Laboratory associates to the war effort. Frustrated at the slow pace and the lack of progress by the so-called "Uranium Committee," established after Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt raised the prospect of an atomic bomb, he agitated for action. On October 22, 1941, he wrote to Arthur Compton following a meeting of project leaders:

…the stakes envisaged are fantastically high. In our meeting yesterday there was a tendency to emphasize the uncertainties, and accordingly the possibility that uranium will not be a factor in the war. This, to my mind, is very dangerous. We should have fastened our attention on the fact that the evidence now is that there is a substantial prospect that the chain reaction will be achieved in the near future, one way or another, and that military applications of transcendental importance may follow.

It will not be a calamity if, when we get the answers to the uranium problem, they turn out negative from the military point of view, but if the answers are fantastically positive and we fail to get them first, the results for our country may well be a tragic disaster. I feel strongly, therefore, that anyone who hesitates on a vigorous, all-out effort on uranium assumes a grave responsibility.

Lawrence, the machine builder, the man whose motto was "the obstacles be damned," was eager for the country to push forward at full throttle with the exploration of the military applications of atomic energy. The push became imperative slightly more than a month after his letter to Compton, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war. On the night after Pearl Harbor, concerned, as were many on the West Coast, about additional attacks or sabotage, Lawrence stayed up all night pacing the fence around the Radiation Laboratory.

As science enlisted in the war effort, scientists from the Laboratory assumed various assignments. McMillan went to MIT to help develop radar. A large number from the Radiation Laboratory went to Los Alamos, where Berkeley physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, with whom Lawrence had frequently consulted on knotty problems confronted by the cyclotron, headed the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. Lawrence's role was to work on the separation of Uranium-235 from Uranium-238, through the electromagnetic process at Berkeley and to help oversee the separation of weapons-grade uranium at the newly-constructed plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Plutonium, the element discovered with the cyclotron by Glenn Seaborg at Berkeley, was generated through the reactor built in Hanford, Washington. It is no exaggeration to say that Berkeley physicists led the Manhattan Project in the creation of an atomic bomb.

It can be said that the 1930s were the happy and exciting years for Ernest Lawrence, culminating in the award of the Nobel Prize at the end of the decade. The war years comprised a period of the frenetic and exhausting effort to create a nuclear weapon, culminating in the Trinity Test in Alamogordo and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Arthur Compton recalled that Lawrence was the last among the wartime scientific panel to give up on the idea of a nuclear demonstration as an alternative to the bombing of Japanese cities. During the war years, work was more complicated, more diffused, but also more urgent, and the collective achievements were monumental.

The postwar years were undoubtedly the most difficult years of Lawrence's career. These were the years in which his political influence was great, his counsel was frequently sought on matters of atomic policy in Washington. But they were not years of significant scientific achievement. Given the nature of the Laboratory, with its large crew, Lawrence had always been something of a scientific administrator as well as a scientist. But in the postwar years, he did little science and a great deal of science administration and public policy. He moved between Washington and Berkeley constantly.

The onset of the Cold War and the detonation of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union in 1949, more than a decade sooner than it was thought to be possible, set the stage for an ugly period of American history. Fear of communism, fueled by the discovery that the secrets of Los Alamos had been passed to the Soviets, led to allegations of a communist conspiracy and the emergence of McCarthyism. Scientists who had worked together on the Manhattan Project began to differ on how best to handle their terrible creation and on whether to build the "Super Bomb," the hydrogen bomb, a thousand times greater than the bombs dropped on Japan. Lawrence believed it essential to build the hydrogen bomb and he persuaded the government to build a large new laboratory in Livermore, California, an hour east of Berkeley, where a gigantic new accelerator was supposed to produce large amounts of fissionable materials. The project never worked as Lawrence had hoped. Seen as overly ambitious, theoretically flawed, and without much chance of success, it was criticized by other physicists, among them Lawrence's former colleague, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer, who bore more responsibility than anyone for the creation of the atomic bomb, and who carried that responsibility as a depressing burden, had believed, from the day after Trinity, that the monopoly of nuclear weapons could not be maintained by the United States. He therefore advocated placing nuclear energy under international control as the only means of constraining the spread of nuclear weapons. He therefore broke with Lawrence and many of his former colleagues over the development of the hydrogen bomb. Regarded suspiciously because of his left-wing associations in Berkeley during the 1930s, falsely suspected of disloyalty because of his opposition to the hydrogen bomb, his judgement called into question by fellow scientists over these matters, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance in 1954. Lawrence was prepared to testify against Oppenheimer in the special hearing, but illness prevented him from making the trip to Washington. Thus finally ended a friendship born when the two men came to Berkeley in 1928 and 1929.

Although he supported the development of thermonuclear weapons in the 1950s, Lawrence also came to support an agreement with the Soviet Union limiting the testing of such weapons. In 1958, though seriously ill with ulcerative colitis, Lawrence went to Geneva, at President Eisenhower's request, to help negotiate a test ban treaty. Too ill to remain there, he returned to California where he died on August 27, 1958, just 57 years of age. Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, commented, "He spent his last resources at Geneva. The cost was his life. He wouldn't have refrained if he had known it would be. That was his way."

John Lawrence continued as an active faculty member for many years after his brother's death. In addition to serving as director of the Donner Laboratory, after 1959, he became the associate director of the Radiation Laboratory, which now bore his brother's name, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He retired in 1970 after a distinguished career and was subsequently appointed to the Board of Regents of the University of California by Governor Reagan. He died in 1991.

The Lawrence legacy is profound and enduring. Together, the brothers helped create the field of nuclear medicine. Ernest Lawrence helped make Berkeley preeminent in high-energy physics beginning in the 1930s and continuing for decades. He created large-scale laboratories centered around large equipment shared by many researchers in many disciplines. He contributed enormously to the development of nuclear physics and its applications in war and peace. The national laboratories that bear his name, in Berkeley and Livermore, are still vital agencies of research. The Berkeley laboratory does no classified research; it has done significant work in the biological sciences, especially in mapping the genome and issues of global warming and the environment. The Livermore Laboratory is conducting important research related to our current defenses against terrorism, including devices that can scan for explosives in a suitcase or a cargo container or kits that quickly provide emergency workers sophisticated information about the presence of biological or chemical agents in a building.

This is quite a legacy for a small town in South Dakota at the turn of the century and a small public university of the 1920s. It is a legacy that should remind each of us who are parents or teachers of the lives that we touch. Dean Akeley could not have known, in the 1920s, of the ultimate impact of his work with the Lawrence brothers, but like all South Dakotans, living close to the soil, he had faith that what he planted would grow. And it did.

Thank you for inviting me to be with you today.