Big Science by Michael Hiltzik

One of my most vivid memories of my childhood was getting up early in the morning and watching the count down at Cape Canaveral of our early space launches, that reached its apex when as a young teenager the ultimate launch took place when Apollo 11 was launched towards the moon. I was 6 when I boarded a Boeing 707 for the first time for a flight to Denver. In my youth anything seemed possible- who knew where mankind might go in my lifetime, who knows what might be achieved. No doubt we would reach far into the solar system, no doubt we would transverse the earth in minutes instead of hours.

Now as I have started the 7th decade of my life its very clear that the answer will be nowhere. We are still talking about the possibility of a flight to Mars, one that if I am fortunate to live to my statistical life expectancy I may yet see, but beyond that… My most recent flight on a relative new aircraft flew at the exact speed that my flight 50 years ago- yes it can go farther without landing to refuel, and is marginally more environmentally friendly, but transport has not changed substantially in my lifetime.

A full explanation for the lack of change is complex and would require a book length manuscript, however part of the explanation can be seen in a New book by Michael Hiltzik called Big Science-Ernest Lawrence, the Cyclotron and the Birth of the Military Industrial Complex. The book chronicle the life of Lawrence- who was singly most responsible for the creation of what the book describes as Big Science. Throughout most of history scientific advances were made by one person working alone in a small laboratory. The needed equipment was small, a microscope or similar size device and while costly required little space and no additional people beside the scientist to operate it. In the late 19th century Thomas Edison pioneered the concept of a a research lab when he created his Menlo Lab, but while it was an efficient place to work the equipment there could easily have been kept in a basement or spare room of an individual scientist or engineer. However by the 1920’s it was in the area of Physics that scientist were running into a brick wall on how to confirm their hypotheses, for the equipment to do so was large and would never fit in a house nor could an individual scientist afford to buy or build the equipment. In stepped Livermore who was the first to find a solution. ON the campus of Cal Tech were he was recruited from Yale he obtain a separate building and separate finding to build his first Cyclotron.

Lawrence was instrumental in created the infrastructure for developing the Atomic bomb, something that was beyond the capabilities of individual scientist or even companies. And it was his model that was used for all the major scientific developments during and after World War II. In the Sixties a level of disillusionment with Big Science developed and funding began to dry up. That disillusionment seemed shared by the right and left for different reasons, the left being concerned that we should be spending money on other things and science was in itself bringing its on set of problems, while the right became convinced that funding science was not the role of government, and should be left to a large degree to the private sector. So today we must rely on Google and Space X for our R&D and hope that the power of computers has given individual scientist the tools to accomplish what only large teams could in the past.

Big Science however tell us the story of those day that we believed in the promise of science and readers of the book will be rewarded to participate as Lawrence and his colleagues make discoveries that only big Science could accomplish. Like everything else there were unintended consequences and Big Science could ultimately be only funded by the military, and it became part of the justification to what became known as the Military Industrial Complex