Friday, November 6, 2015

Book Review: Big Science

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex
Michael Hiltzik
Science, History 

Big Science is a sound but slightly frustrating piece of work. There's nothing actually wrong with it. It's just that it's not exactly about anything. It's not a biography of Lawrence, since it makes no attempt at completeness regarding his outside-the-lab existence. It's not particularly deep either on the engineering of cyclotrons or on their underlying physics. It's almost but not quite a biography of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It certainly doesn't fully live up to its title; there are occasional forays into "small" science, Big Science, and the transition between them, but it's nowhere near being a strong theme.

Also, it is in no way clear that the cyclotron was "the" invention that launched the military-industrial complex. That whole World War II thing probably had something to do with it. If anything, Big Science is over-weighted towards military episodes--the atomic bomb and post-war developments--towards which Lawrence's contribution was measurable but hardly pivotal.

The really frustrating part is that, reading between the lines, you can see where the story would have been. It reads as though Michael Hiltzik had too much material to choose from, and ultimately lost control of the narrative.

One of the better scientific biographies I've read is A Force of Nature: TheScientific Genius of Ernest Rutherford (Richard Reeves), which showcases the other great Ernest's "small-science" approach. The standard work on the Manhattan Project is Richard Rhodes's Pulitzer-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

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