Ernest Orlando Lawrence Biography (1901-1958)


Ernest Orlando Lawrence was born in Canton, South Dakota, on August 8, 1901.His grandparents had emigrated from Norway in 1846. His father was an educator who eventually became superintendent of public instruction for the state ofSouth Dakota. Lawrence attended public schools in Canton and then Pierre, where he graduated from high school at the age of 16. One of his close friendsin high school was Merle A. Tuve, who later became a professional colleague of Lawrence's in the development of particle accelerators. Lawrence entered Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, but, after one year, transferred to the University of South Dakota. Although originally interested in a medicalcareer, Lawrence soon decided to change his major to physics. He was strongly influenced in this decision by Lawrence E. Akeley (1910- ), professor of electrical engineering. Lawrence graduated from the university in 1922 with high honors in physics. After earning a master's degree at the University of Minnesota, Lawrence entered the University of Chicago to pursue a doctoral degree in physics. When his advisor, W. F. G. Swann (1884-1962), moved to Yale University, Lawrence went with him and received his Ph.D. in 1925. For the nextthree years, Lawrence remained at Yale as a research fellow and assistant professor of physics. In 1928, Lawrence was offered a position at the Universityof California at Berkeley (UCB). Today, UCB is widely recognized as one of the world's great universities with a strong tradition of research in physics.But in 1928, the university was not well known. Lawrence's decision to leavethe old and highly respected Yale institution for the uncertainty of a youngand poorly regarded California university was courageous and adventurous. Two years after arriving in Berkeley, Lawrence was appointed full professor, the youngest person with that title at the university. The invention for whichLawrence is best known is the cyclotron. The cyclotron is a device for accelerating protons, electrons, and other sub-atomic particles to very high velocities. The particles then collide with atomic nuclei and blow them apart. Theproducts of such reactions reveal intimate details about the composition andstructure of atoms. Lawrence and two graduate students, Niels E. Edlefsen andM. Stanley Livingston (1905-1986), took nearly two years (1930-1931) to build the first cyclotron. The device was only 4.5 inches (11 cm) in diameter andoperated on normal household current. But it was able to produce particles with 80,000 electron volts (80 keV) of energy and, therefore, confirmed the principle on which it had been built. Based on the success of his first model,Lawrence was able to get a $1,000 grant from the National Research Council for further studies. With this money and donated parts and material, he built alarger cyclotron. The new machine had a diameter of 9.8 inches (25 cm) and produced particles with energies of more than one million electron volts. By the end of the decade, more than fifty cyclotrons were in use or under construction throughout the world. During World War II, Lawrence became concerned that Nazi Germany might develop a method for making a fission weapon (an atomicbomb). He joined with other scientists to encourage President Roosevelt (1882-1945) to support American research in that field. When the Manhattan Project was created in response to this request, Lawrence became actively involvedin research on the bomb. He converted a thirty-seven inch (94 cm) cyclotron on the UCB campus into a device for producing uranium needed in the bomb. A friend claims that he worked "twelve hours a day, seven days a week" on the project. In his spare time, Lawrence became interested in the problems of colortelevision. He invented a color television picture tube that he called the chromatron. He did not have the time or financial resources, however, to see his invention through to production. Lawrence died on August 27, 1958 during anoperation for ulcerative colitis. He received many awards and honors both during his lifetime and after his death. In 1939 he was awarded the Nobel Prizein physics for his work on the cyclotron. In 1961, newly discovered element103 was named lawrencium in his honor. Three important facilities at UCB--Lawrence Hall of Science, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory--have been named after him.

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