Ernest O. Lawrence, Physicist


Ernest O. Lawrence, Physicist

Lawrence Residence: 111 Tamalpais Road
Office: LeConte Hall, UC Berkeley

Ernest Lawrence’s discoveries have strongly influenced the course of scientific research from the 1930s to the present day. He provided the model for the “Big Science” undertakings of government, industry and academia. After graduating from the University of South Dakota, Lawrence received a Ph.D. in physics from Yale.  Following a short period as an Assistant Professor there, he accepted an offer from UC Berkeley in 1928 where he remained on the faculty until his death.

In 1929, Lawrence realized that, by using a novel approach, atomic particles could be accelerated to previously unattainable energies. By 1932, with the help of Stanley Livingston and other graduate assistants, he had a small cyclotron working.  Larger and more complex machines followed quickly and formed the basis of the massive machines now used to explore particle physics, fundamental biological processes, and medical radiation therapy (the latter was first used successfully by Lawrence and his brother John, a physician, in cancer treatment for their mother). Lawrence’s “atom smashers” caught the public’s attention and he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. In 1939 he won the Nobel Prize for his invention of this fundamental device.

Although nominally only in charge of the World War II Manhattan Project’s effort to separate the isotopes of uranium, his energy and “let’s get to it” attitude influenced the entire Project’s timing and development.

The devices that Lawrence and his students and colleagues built were more expensive and more complicated than anything seen before in academic science. Lawrence’s ability and personality helped convince private and government entities to collaborate with scientists in large, ambitious projects.  Prime examples of those early efforts include the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (originally called “The Rad Lab”), situated on the hills above the UC campus and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Livermore, CA.

Contributed by Ed Theil, 2012

  • Lawrence Residence, 111 Tamalpias Rd., photo (2012), R. Kehlmann.

  • Ernest O. Lawrence (1935), LBNL Image Library.

  • Lawrence, Seaborg and Oppenheimer at controls of cyclotron magnet (1946), Government Archives.

  • Ernest O. Lawrence, Enrico Fermi and Isador Rabi (ca. 1943–1945), US Government Archives.

More information:
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Videos on particle accelerators:
Berkeley Lab History

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society