Wednesday, September 23, 2009

John L. Heilbron: "Bancroft Centennial Symposium: Big Science and Big Bridges"

Here's a shorter lecture by John on the humble origins of big science: "Bancroft Centennial Symposium: Big Science and Big Bridges." As usual, he manages to make physics, its context, and its history intelligible, interesting, and humorous.

This story happens to be the tale of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and its development of the cyclotron, which started in 1931 with Ernest Orlando Lawrence and the so-called 'Rad-Lab' ten years before government began funding scientific work on a large scale, so Lawrence had to collect 'junk' and turn to philanthropists and private investors to support the increasingly expensive experiments conducted with his found art of smashing atoms -- more of a perfomance art, actually, of which he was the due champ and received a Nobel Prize in 1939. I refer, of course, to his use of gigantic magnets thrown away by Federal Telegraph Company and scavanged by Lawrence to assist in accelerating atoms to the speeds requisite for the dirty job of obliterating fellow atoms . . . or at least smashing them to smithereens.

This lecture and the stuff dealt with bring back memories of my history-of-science years even though my forte was history of biology -- not that my own forte was especially fortified or particularly formidable -- but I was constantly hearing John and the others talk about the history of that lab. I suppose that I'm being somewhat self-indulgent these past few days, strolling down memory lane. Still, if you're interested in this sort of thing, i.e., physics and its history, give the video a look-see. It's only about 25 entertaining minutes, time well spent if you like likable lectures on technical stuff.

John, by the way, also has some intriguing things to say, in his conclusion, about big science's bureaucratic tendency to limit scientific discovery, given the risk-averse character of government-funded research.

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At 3:13 PM, Blogger John B said...

Very, very cool.

Physics today is running pretty much the same way. Look around cutting-edge university laboratories and you'll see the same kind of scavenged stuff.

One thing he didn't mention was that virtually all of the nuclear physics guys died of cancer later on. It's a sad fact that most of the brightest scientists of the time were eventually killed by their research.

At 6:54 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

He didn't mention it, but he implied it in some remarks.

By the way, I appreciate the man more now that I've gotten older. He's really insightful.

I'm glad that you liked the lecture.

Jeffery Hodges

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