This latest book in my reviewing adventures continues the recentish trend of books concerned with science during World War II. Michael Hiltzik’s Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex follows books such as Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler, Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War and Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l’Histoire. A little further back, there’s Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War and Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact, which I read and enjoyed but never got around to reviewing. And graphic novel-wise, there’s Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb and even Feynman and Suspended In Language: Niels Bohr’s Life, Discoveries, And The Century He Shaped about Neils Bohr (another I read and enjoyed but haven’t reviewed).
Which adds up to quite the little obsession, when you think about it. Which is fine, of course, we’re all allowed our obsessions. And FSM knows, the history of the atomic bomb in particular and World War II in general are endlessly fascinating.
Which brings us to Big Science.
Which is a scientific and technological biography of Ernest Lawrence as well the story of the birth of Big Science as a research and funding methodology. And to throw in some spice, we also see how Lawrence and Big Science collide (heh) during the late 1930s through the epochal year of 1945 to help bring us the atomic age.
With all this thrown in, what could possibly go wrong? And Hiltzik delivers and excellent and detailed history of all those intersections which, which it might drag at some moments, has a hugely interesting story to tell, one that I really didn’t know a lot about and one that probably needs to be better understood in the modern world.
Especially the whole Big Science thing. Yeah, especially that.
Big science is a term used by scientists and historians of science to describe a series of changes in science which occurred in industrial nations during and after World War II, as scientific progress increasingly came to rely on large-scale projects usually funded by national governments or groups of governments.
Because it was Ernest Lawrence and his drive to build bigger and better cyclotrons and colliders at University of California Berkeley that drove the creation and development of Big Science. It was Lawrence who also pushed the nascent idea of Big Science towards it’s logical conclusion during World War II, using his ideas of big labs funded by big government with big staffs to found the Oak Ridge National Lab as well as the Livermore National Lab, which later was renamed Lawrence Livermore.
Hiltzik does a great job of outlining Lawrence’s progress, painting him as a kind of relentless technocrat, imbued with the endless optimism of science and discovery, willing to do almost anything to get where he needed to get. But not as a villain of the piece, blindly pushing for an ever-more militaristic scientific establishment — the Military Industrial Complex. Though that’s what Lawrence (and the rest of us) seem to have ended up with, Lawrence the bureaucrat and manager comes off as more naive and overly optimistic than scheming or grasping. As David Lilienthal described him, one of the “scientists in grey flannel suits.” (411)
The last section of the book puts it in context. While the paradigm has lead to amazing things — like what the Large Hadron Collider has given us in theoretical physics or the Human Genome Project in biology — there’s also been a cost. When science costs an awful lot of money, what happens is that the paymasters get to start calling the shots. In government and academia, that’s increasingly the case, as science gets more corporatised. The Manhattan Project was kind of the great honeymoon for Big Science, but seventy years its has become far too ingrained for any talk of divorce.
Michael Hiltzik’s Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex is a very good book and a wonderful addition to some less-well-known periods of science — the eras just before and just after World War II. It was certainly an area where my knowledge was lacking. As well, during the section on World War II, the focus on the Oak Ridge, TN lab where the uranium was enriched rather than Los Alamos which usually gets all the attention, was quite welcome. I recommend this book without reservation for any academic collection that collects in the history of science or WWII.
Hiltzik, Michael. Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 528pp. ISBN-13: 978-1451675757
(Review copy provided by the publisher.)