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Ernest Lawrence

Ernest Orlando Lawrence was the inventor of the cyclotron, Nobel Prize winner, and namesake of Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories.

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."

The invention that would rocket E. O. Lawrence to international fame started out modestly as a sketch on a scrap of paper. While sitting in the library one evening, Lawrence happened to glance 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 idea was surprisingly simple, but Lawrence double-checked his theory with physicists from Yale to make sure he had not overlooked a critical detail.

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 make-shift cyclotron, he got 80,000-volt projectiles spinning around. He had discovered a way to "smash" atoms, and in doing so he unwittingly paved the way for the U.S. nuclear weapons program that was to follow a decade later.

"Without a doubt, Lawrence's finest achievement was inventing the cyclotron," said York. "The cyclotron impacted future scientific advances." In November 1939, Lawrence won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the cyclotron and its various applications.

Just after his death in 1958, the University of California Board of Regents voted to rename the Berkeley and Livermore laboratories after E.O. Lawrence. "I think if Lawrence were to visit the Lab today, he'd take the same 'gee whiz' attitude that he took 50 years ago," York said. "His lab has evolved in a perfectly natural way—the scope is wider, but the science is still an adventure, and that's an important attitude to maintain here."

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