About the Image

One of the less widely remembered sites of the Manhattan Project was E. O. Lawrence’s Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Lawrence’s lab had been interested in radioisotopes since the 1930s; soon after World War II began, the lab became the central node for investigating ways to make, and use, new radioactive elements.

After the war, the newly created Atomic Energy Commission’s decision to fund a cyclotron at Lawrence’s lab set a precedent for that agency’s involvement in supporting large capital projects at universities. Lawrence’s lab absolutely continued to work on military projects, ranging from traditional weapons development to the potential uses of radioisotopes in radiological warfare. At other sites, however, such as Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, giant cyclotrons powered research in high-energy physics that might never have practical applications. The AEC’s complicated relationship to funding so-called basic research is perhaps the most telling example of how difficult it is to separate “defense” and “non-defense” projects in Cold War science, a theme I explore at length in Competing with the Soviets.

My choice of a Berkeley cyclotron for a header image is, in part, a reference to the Lawrence laboratory’s symbolic role in tying together basic and applied, university and military research during the Cold War. But I also like this image because the composition is so stark. Over a decade before President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the dangers of a creeping “military-industrial-complex,” and fifteen years before Alvin Weinberg coined the term “Big Science,” this image captures a sense of how postwar scientists and engineers came to be defined through their relationships with machines. There’s something elegiac here in the way that this unidentified laboratory worker sits in the very middle of a giant scientific instrument. This comes across better in the original, uncropped photograph:

I found this image in Record Group 326G (Atomic Energy Commission photographs) in the Still Pictures division of the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland, credited to the University of California. The original caption reads as follows: “September 14, 1947. View of 184″ cyclotron in early stages of conversion from calutron showing at left the magnet yoke, pole faces, and vacuum chamber and showing at the right the face plate and dee ready to be rolled into place.” The somewhat depressed-looking man in the tie is not identified in the photo itself, but the good folks on Twitter (thanks especially to @GWilliamThomas) believe him to be Robert Thornton. Based on another image from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory History Flickr stream, this photo appears to be one of a series featuring physicists inside their machines.