The Life of Ernest Orlando Lawrence

Ernest Orlando Lawrence
Physicist, Engineer, Statesman of Science

Ernest Orlando Lawrence's scientific accomplishments and influence on science are almost unique in his generation and rank among the most outstanding in history. His cyclotron was to nuclear science what Galileo's telescope was to astronomy. A foremost symbol of the rise of indigenous American science in the 20th century, Lawrence, perhaps more than any other man, brought engineering to the laboratory, to the great benefit of scientific progress. He originated a new pattern of research, of the group type and on the grand scale, which has been emulated the world over. Rarely, if ever, has any person given so many others, in such a small span of years, the opportunity to make careers for themselves in science. Lawrence was a leader in bringing the daring of science to technology, in wedding science to the general welfare, and in integrating science into national policy.

Lawrence was born in Canton, South Dakota, on August 8, 1901, the son of educated Norwegian immigrants. He received his B.S. degree from the University of South Dakota and his M.A. in physics from the University of Minnesota. He continued his studies at the University of Chicago for two years, then transferred to Yale, where he received his Ph.D. in 1925. In 1928, Lawrence went to the University of California as an associate professor and in 1930, at the age of 29, he became the youngest full professor on the Berkeley faculty.

His doctoral thesis was in photoelectricity. Later, he made the most precise determination, to that time, of the ionization potential of the mercury atom. With J.W. Beams he devised a method of obtaining time intervals as small as three billionths of a second, and he applied this technique to study the early stages of electric spark discharge. He originated a new and more precise method for measuring e/m, which was perfected by F.G. Dunnington.

In 1929, young Lawrence, who for some time had been contemplating the problem of accelerating ions, chanced, while scanning the literature, upon a sketch in a German publication. He formulated, within minutes, the principles of the cyclotron and the linear accelerator and so set himself upon a course that was to fundamentally influence scientific research and human events. Between the brilliant, simple concept and operating machines lay engineering barriers not previously encountered. Lawrence's willingness to tackle new engineering problems and his success in solving them, as he reached for successively new energy ranges, was a departure in scientific research that is an important part of his contribution. The hard road he chose was recognized when W.D. Coolidge, presenting Lawrence with the National Academy of Science's valued Comstock Prize in 1937, said in part, "Dr. Lawrence envisioned a radically different course ... [which] called for boldness and faith and persistence to a degree rarely matched." By 1936, the scale of research and supporting engineering development was so large that the Radiation Laboratory was created at the University of California. The prototype of the big laboratory had been born.

Lawrence championed interdisciplinary collaboration: he strongly encouraged physicists to work with biologists and he set up his own radioisotope distribution system, supplying isotopes to hundreds of doctors and numerous institutions in the prewar period. With his brother John, director of the University's medical center, he used the cyclotron to irradiate malignant tissues with neutrons.

In July 1958, Lawrence traveled to Geneva to take part in developing an agreement on means for detecting nuclear weapon tests. In the midst of negotiations, he became ill and was forced to return to Palo Alto, California, where he died on August 27, 1958.

Lawrence received many awards during his lifetime, including the Nobel Prize for 1939, the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society, the Medal for Merit, the Faraday Medal, the American Cancer Society Medal, the very first Enrico Fermi Award, and the first Sylvanus Thayer Award. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and recipient of many honorary degrees and memberships in foreign societies.


This biography was excerpted from "E. 0. Lawrence: Physicist, Engineer, Statesman of Science," by Glenn T. Seaborg, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., Nuclear and Plasma Science,5 Society News, June 1992.

For more information, view the following link:
Lawrence and the Cyclotron: AIP History Center Web ExhibitExternal link

Last modified: 3/18/2013 11:03:43 AM