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Big Science

Hiltzik, Michael. Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. p. 512.

To be truthful I had reservations about reviewing Big Science.  My speciality in American history is really from Colonization to Reconstruction – despite having taught US History II in its various forms.  When you combine that with the fact that my knowledge of science is pathetic, well you can understand my trepidation.  However, reading and reviewing Michael Hiltzik’s book Big Science has been a pleasure.

For me, the first mark of any good book is its readability.  No matter how important the story, no matter how necessary the information, if an author cannot put words to page then the book is really an expensive doorstop.  This is simply not the case with Big Science.  Hiltzik’s writing style is a pleasure to read.  It reads like a novel and makes me want to check out his other works notably The New Deal: A Modern History so I can learn some recent American History.

Big Science tells the story of Ernest O. Lawrence the creator of the cyclotron.  Lawrence was a physicist who also worked on the Manhattan Project.  The books serves as a biography of Lawrence but also advances Hiltzik’s argument that during Lawrence’s time as the study of physics became more complicated and the equipment more expensive, there was this evolution from “mom and pop” physics (my words) or physics funded on the small scale to “Big Science” or corporate/university/government funded science with big budgets, facilities, and staffs.  Lawrence was at the forefront of this evolution keenly aware of and networking with big donors who would support his lab at Berkeley.

Hiltzik’s story is important for understanding today’s paradigm for studying science.  The politics of government/corporate/university support of scientific advancement has its roots with Ernest O. Lawrence and Big Science.  It is definitely worth reading.