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  • Writer's pictureGeoff H.

Review of Big Science

My Rating: 5 of 5 Stars


Michael Hiltzik's Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex is a hugely interesting and fascinating look into the world of physics, and physics' interaction with government and industry, during the first half of the 20th Century. Big Science is mostly a biography about Ernest Lawrence, the inventory of the cyclotron, and also the inventor of the concept of "Big Science" - that scientific advancement needs to have patrons with deep pockets (namely the government and industry) to fund the large scale projects necessary to advance our knowledge of the universe.

Hiltzik does a wonderful job of weaving the story of Ernest Lawrence - who became a leading figure in high energy physics and was director of the UC Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, and the Livermore National Lab (now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) - with the history of discovery around the mysteries of the atom and particle physics. We see the development of the cyclotron (the first particle accelerators) and how the cyclotron, and the research performed by Lawrence and the many physicists and chemists that he collected at the Rad Lab, led to the development of the first nuclear reactors and the atomic bomb. Hiltzik does a great job of showing Lawrence's passion for the science, and the near mania for national security and nationalism that led to the development of the hydrogen bomb after World War 2. Through it all we get a detailed view of the policies and politics (both national and personal) that shaped the world before, during, and after World War 2 and into the Cold War.

Big Science is a great read for anybody with in interest in science history, US history, and the history of World War 2 as Hiltzik weaves many separate histories and lines of inquiry to show how all of these areas coalesced in the mid-20th Century. I highly recommend this book as an in depth look into the live of Ernest Lawrence, and how his vision for "Big Science" dominated the discipline of physics for over 40 years, and still has an impact to this day.

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