Completed in 1931, with funds supplied by the Rockefeller Foundation, Research Corporation and the University of California, Berkeley, Ernest Lawrence's cyclotron — an accelerator that produced high-energy particles — revolutionized nuclear physics.
In his new book, "Big Science," Michael Hiltzik, a writer for the Los Angeles Times and author of "Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age," provides an informative and thought-provoking account of the role played by the cyclotron and Lawrence's radiation laboratory in the emergence of the military-industrial complex.
Backed with a record of accomplishment, including nuclear weapons and radioisotopes that destroyed cancer cells, the cyclotron, Hiltzik says, depended on passions — "for secrecy, for regimentation, for big investments to yield even bigger returns" — that government and industry leaders shared but that gave some academics (and philanthropic foundations) pause.
Hiltzik documents the escalating costs of ever-larger cyclotrons. At more than half a billion dollars, he indicates, the construction of an electromagnet separation plant during World War II constituted the most expensive component of the Manhattan Project.
And the Cold War offered additional opportunities to make Big Science bigger by building synchrotrons, linear accelerators, "hot labs," reactors and hydrogen superbombs — and to get funding from the Defense Department, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
By the 1970s, critics began to question the scale, expense and return on investment of such projects. Stagflation put pressure on the federal budget. Congress banned the Pentagon from spending money on research not directly related to the military. And opposition to the Vietnam War resulted in restrictions on university-based research on weapons.
By 1993, when Congress killed the Superconducting Super Collider (projected to cost $6 billion) and the center of gravity of high-energy physics shifted to the Hadron Collider in Switzerland, some observers deemed it the death knell of Big Science in the U.S.
For some decades now, Hiltzik writes, the growth rate of federal expenditures for Big Science has been a far cry from what it was in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 21st century, industry (whose priorities are distinctly different from those of universities, philanthropic foundations and government) is now responsible for two-thirds of the research and development spending in the United States.
It seems clear, however, that the military-industrial complex remains alive and well. And it's probably a mistake to count out university-based researchers, who are as determined as Ernest Lawrence to use Big Science to enrich our understanding of the natural world.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.