Making Physics: a Biography of Brookhaven National Laboratory

27 May 1999

1946­1972 by Robert P Crease, University of Chicago Press 0 226 12017 1 (446pp $38/£30.50).


Crease calls this book a biography because he likens Brookhaven National Laboratory to a community, and a community lends itself to biographical treatment. Crease is a philosopher, but he has absorbed and is faithful to the ethos of the scientific community.

I have been at Brookhaven for 44 years but found much in this book that I did not know about the place. Crease had full access to the laboratory’s archives and had interviews with many of the personnel. I found the book fascinating and a good read. He recounts the history of the founding of Brookhaven; the drive by I I Rabi to obtain large physics instruments for the east of the US after the Second World War; the interactions with the Manhattan District of the US Army, which had built the atomic bombs; and the finally successful negotiations with the Federal Government for the establishment of the laboratory at the US Army’s Camp Upton site.

Brookhaven was the first civilian laboratory to have a reactor. Along with the reactor it was decided that accelerators would also be built there. The first two were a Van de Graaff and a 60 inch cyclotron. Both of these machines were built by commercial companies and neither worked properly until significantly altered by laboratory personnel. Rabi was insistent that a large synchrotron should be built at Brookhaven. In a compromise worked out with the funding agency and Berkeley, it was agreed that Brookhaven would build a 2­3 GeV machine and Berkeley a 8 GeV machine with Brookhaven to get the follow-on machine later.

After the Cosmotron was finished, the Brookhaven accelerator builders were informed that a delegation of accelerator builders from a new laboratory, called CERN (modelled to a considerable extent on Brookhaven), would be visiting with plans to build a machine more ambitious than the Cosmotron. Livingston felt that Brookhaven should do more than just show and tell, and organized a study group to brainstorm for improvements on the Cosmotron’s basic design. Crease narrates how this study group came up with the ideas for alternating gradient synchrotrons. When the CERN group arrived they were caught up in the excitement, changed their plans and resolved to build what became the PS. Brookhaven built the AGS, which came on line shortly after the PS.

Crease goes into considerable detail about the work done in particle physics, in nuclear physics (both at the reactors and the accelerators) and in solidstate physics. Brookhaven is a multidisciplinary laboratory, and while Crease’s emphasis is on physics, there is also information about some of the work in other disciplines, such as medicine, chemistry, instrumentation and biology. He cites the development of Tc99 as used in nuclear medicine. It is the predominantly used radionuclide in the several million nuclear-medicine procedures performed today.

Other fruitful developments include the first treatment for Parkinson’s disease and the effect of salt on hypertension. Ray Davis’s work on the detection of solar neutrinos was done in the chemistry department with help from the instrumentation department.

Science is made by human beings. Crease emphasizes the human side of Brookhaven, with miniportraits of many of the prominent personalities associated with the laboratory. He describes in some detail its administration, the interaction of scientists with the administration and how scientific policy is set. He describes interactions among strong-willed personalities and how some of this impacts the research done. He explains the science well and made remarkably few errors.

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