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Ernest Orlando Lawrence

(1901—1958) American physicist


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(1901–1958)

US physicist, who was awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize for Physics for his invention of the cyclotron. Element 103 was named lawrencium in his honour.

The son of a school superintendent in rural South Dakota, he was educated at the universities of South Dakota, Minnesota, Chicago, and Yale, where he gained his PhD in 1925. In 1928 Lawrence joined the University of California at Berkeley, remaining there for the rest of his career as professor of physics. After 1936, he also became director of the Radiation Laboratory, later to be known as the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory.

In 1929 Lawrence began the development of one of the key devices of high-energy physics, the cyclotron. Although Lawrence's first model produced only a few thousand electronvolts it was the ancestor of modern accelerators that are capable of producing energies of many billions of electronvolts. Under Lawrence's direction the Radiation Laboratory became one of the leading centres in the world for research into high-energy physics and a number of new radioisotopes were discovered there, including tritium, carbon-14, uranium-233, and plutonium. Many synthetic elements were also created and, for the first time, antiparticles were produced in a laboratory.

With the entry of the USA into World War II, Lawrence diverted his laboratory's resources to the preparation of uranium-235 for use in the atom bomb. However, despite a massive investment, the amount of uranium produced was negligible and had little impact on the construction of the bomb. In 1949, when news came that the Soviets had exploded an atomic bomb, Lawrence and Edward Teller actively campaigned for the development of the hydrogen bomb. Lawrence was also concerned with his Materials Testing Accelerator (MTA), a device generally agreed to be ill-conceived. The project with its intractable problems did much to wear Lawrence out and probably hastened his death from ulcerative colitis in 1958.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).


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