Kept myself awake, alert, and entertained driving the long road to and from Syracuse yesterday listening to Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik. This is my favorite passage of many terrific passages so far, because it’s vivid and well-written and seems to capture the men described so well, and because it strikes me as very Plutarch’s Lives-ish, just waiting for some upstart crow of a playwright to come along and turn it into a tragedy for the stage:
It is the emblematic photograph of Ernest Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer together in the full bloom of their friendship, long before their personal relations became soured by rivalry, suspicion, and politics. Snapped at Perro Caliente (“Hot Dog”), the New Mexico ranch Oppenheimer leased with his brother, Frank, it is undated, but the time must have been the early 1930s. The friends are both wearing riding boots encrusted up to the calf with desert sand from a recent outing on horseback. Ernest stands evenly balanced on the balls of his feet, like a youthful Mark Antony, in command of his surroundings; he wears a neat checked jacket over a V-necked sweater and a knotted tie, grinning broadly at the camera. Robert slouches against the fender of is Packard automobile, his shapeless dark jacket covered with dust, his hair an unkempt mop, his eyes glaring mistrustfully at the lens from under hooded brows.
What was it that united these men from irreconcilably divergent backgrounds? To those who knew them both during the quarter century in which they joined to create Big Science and dominated American physics, Ernest Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer were a most enigmatic pair; Ernest, the offspring of Lutheran schoolteachers, raised in the upper Midwest and educated at a land-grant college; Robert, the scion of a Jewish merchant family, the product of Harvard and the great European temples of learning. Lawrence was broad shouldered and athletic (Robert would marvel at his “unbelievable vitality”) and always neatly groomed; Oppenheimer was alarmingly thin and permanently disheveled, a cigarette almost invariably drooping from his lips. Even their personal inconsistencies seemed like photographic negatives of each other’s. Ernest projected the air of worldly bon vivant, but in truth, the work of his lab always came first. Robert projected the air of an ascetic, but his indulgences were manifold and libertine: wine, women, food, music, and politics. Around te time they first met, the extroverted Lawrence was preparing to become engaged to the woman to whom he would remain married all his life; the introspective Oppenheimer arrived in Berkeley with several love affairs under his belt and with more yet to come.
The common force in their lives was physics. But that is an incomplete answer, for their approaches to science were also divergent: Oppenheimer was a theorist who could barely turn a bolt with a wrench; Lawrence an experimentalist whose inspired gadgetry transformed how physics---including Oppenheimer’s physics---was done. Perhaps that was the secret. They seemed to be complementary pieces making a whole, the way particle and wave manifestations together defined a photon.