Today in History – February 29, 1940 – The Nobel Prize in Physics was presented to Ernest Lawrence “for the invention and development of the cyclotron and for results obtained with it, especially with regard to artificial radioactive elements”. Due to WWII, the prize could not be awarded in Sweden and was awarded instead in Berkley, California on this date.
In 1929 Ernest Lawrence invented the cyclotron, a particle accelerator designed to bombard atoms of various elements, disintegrating the atoms to subparticles, sometimes resulting in completely new elements. Hundreds of radioactive isotopes of the known elements were discovered from the cyclotron, including the transuranium element, plutonium, the first synthetic element to be produced on a large scale. Ernest Lawrence’s brother, John, collaborated with him in studying medical and biological applications of the cyclotron, laying the foundation for today’s diagnostic tools and radiation treatment for cancer.
During World War II Ernest Lawrence made vital contributions to the development of the atomic bomb under the Manhatten Project. After the war he worked hard to obtain international agreement on the suspension of atomic-bomb testing and was a member of the U.S. delegation at the 1958 Geneva Conference on this subject. His work to “control the atom” from misuse was controversial and his lack of support for colleagues brought before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities during the control war came under criticism by both the right and the left.
This discovery provides an interesting case in engineering ethics and the social implications of technology. Today, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), named after Lawrence, has taken the lead in a diverse range of projects in particle physics and energy, such as environmental energy technologies.
See the Engineering Pathway’s educational resources on particle physics and the cyclotron or visit the Nuclear Engineering Education, Chemical Engineering Education or Engineering Ethics community sites for more information.
It is interesting to note that Lawrence grew up in a small town in South Dakota. My grandfather, who worked as an aeronautical and civil engineer, went to high school with him and recalls that small towns in the West provided fertile ground for young minds excited about opportunities in science and engineering. The Hewlett Foundation has recently re-visited this concept and is funding the Engineering Schools of the West Initiative.