Berkeley Lab: The Beginning

The Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, had its beginnings with the work of Ernest Orlando Lawrence. Lawrence was an early and ardent proponent of the concept of interdisciplinary science. Lawrence defied conventional wisdom, promoting collaboration among scientists in different fields. He believed this would make science more dynamic, accelerating the quest for fundamental knowledge while also producing technology that could benefit society.

Lawrence's pioneering work in nuclear physics won him international acclaim, as this 1937 cover of TIME magazine suggests. Two years later, in 1939, he would receive the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The tradition of big, interdisciplinary science started by Lawrence has resulted in an ongoing history of landmark science. To date, Berkeley Lab scientists have been awarded a total of nine Nobel laureates, more than all of the other national laboratories combined. The most recent Nobel recipient is Yuan T. Lee, who received the prize for Chemistry in 1986.

Lawrence's legacy transformed U.S. scientific research so greatly that the Department of Energy created the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Memorial Award to honor other scientists whose work is most outstanding.

Lawrence helped to usher in a new era in science with the invention of this small device, the cyclotron, in 1929. Now housed in the Smithsonian, it measures only five inches across. Largely because of this invention, scientists from across the country and around the world sought positions at U.C. Berkeley. Many others volunteered their services, and expertise to take part in research that, everyone involved knew, had unfathomable potential.

Of course, some disagreed. Albert Einstein commented: "You see, it is like shooting birds in the dark, in a country where there are only a few birds."

But scientists and engineers continued to come to Berkeley. More cyclotrons were built, larger and more sophisticated. And then in 1942, the Laboratory was relocated to its present site above the University of California at Berkeley campus with the construction of the 184 inch cyclotron. The Laboratory thus became a center of this nation's basic research dominance, and has maintained this prominence for over 50 years.

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