Born in Canton, South Dakota, Lawrence attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota, but transferred to the University of South Dakota after his first year. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1922. He received his Ph.D. in physics at Yale University in 1925. He remained at Yale as a researcher on the photoelectric effect, becoming an assistant professor in 1927.
He was called the "Atom Smasher," the man who "held the key" to atomic energy. "He wanted to do 'big physics,' the kind of work that could only be done on a large scale with a lot of people involved," said Herbert York, the first director of the Lawrence Livermore laboratory, as quoted on the lab's official Web site.
The invention that brought Lawrence to international fame started out as a sketch on a scrap of paper. While sitting in the library one evening, Lawrence glanced over a journal article and was intrigued by one of the diagrams. The idea was to produce very high energy particles required for atomic disintegration by means of a succession of very small "pushes." Lawrence told his colleagues that he had found a method for obtaining particles of very high energy without the use of any high voltage.
The first model of Lawrence's cyclotron was made out of wire and sealing wax and probably cost $25 in all. And it worked: When Lawrence applied 2,000 volts of electricity to his makeshift cyclotron, he got 80,000-volt projectiles spinning around. Through his increasingly larger machines, Lawrence was able to provide the crucial equipment needed for experiments in high energy physics. Around this device, Lawrence built up his Radiation Laboratory, which would become one of the foremost laboratories for physics research.
In November 1939, Lawrence won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the cyclotron and its applications. In 1936 he became Director of the University's Radiation Laboratory and served until his death.
During World War II, Lawrence eagerly helped to ramp up the American investigation of the possibility of weapon by atomic fission. His Rad Lab became one of the major centers for wartime atomic research, and it was Lawrence who first introduced J. Robert Oppenheimer into what would become the Manhattan Project. An early champion of the electromagnetic separation method to enrich uranium, Lawrence manufactured his calutrons — specialized forms of mass spectrometers — for the massive separation plants at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
After the war, Lawrence campaigned extensively for government sponsorship of large scientific programs. Lawrence is held to be one of the great usherers of the era of "Big Science" with its requirements for big machines and big money.
In July 1958, President Eisenhower sent Lawrence to Geneva, Switzerland, to negotiate the suspension of nuclear weapons testing with the Soviet Union. Lawrence became ill while in Geneva and was forced to return to Berkeley. He died a month later in Palo Alto, California.
Just 23 days after his death, the Regents of the University of California voted to rename the Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories after him. Element number 103, discovered at LBNL in 1961, was named "lawrencium" in his honour.
- The American Institute of Physics History Center website on Ernest Lawrence
- Lawrence Livermore Lab: Biography
- Ernest Lawrence
- Lawrence and His Laboratory: A Historian's View of the Lawrence Years by the respected historians of science J. L. Heilbron, Robert W. Seidel, and Bruce R. Wheaton.