UC’s first Nobel Prize presented in Berkeley 75 years ago

On the eve of World War II, Hitler’s submarine wolf packs plied the Atlantic, making steamship travel perilous and preventing Ernest O. Lawrence from being awarded his 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics by the King of Sweden.

Lawrence receiving the Nobel Prize in Berkeley

The 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Ernest Orlando Lawrence during a special ceremony at Wheeler Hall on Feb. 29, 1940. Presenting the prize is the Swedish consul general, with UC President Robert Sproul looking on. (Photo courtesy of Berkeley Lab)

So Sweden’s consul general in San Francisco brought the University of California’s first Nobel Prize to Berkeley on Feb. 29, 1940, presenting it to the 39-year-old Lawrence — attired in the requisite white tie and tails — and inaugurating a long tradition of Nobels that now number 62 throughout the UC system and 22 at Berkeley.

Lawrence, the grandson of Norwegian immigrants who settled in South Dakota, was the world’s lone recipient that year of the physics prize “for the invention and development of the cyclotron and for results obtained with it, especially with regard to artificial radioactive elements.”

“We are gathered this evening to witness an event which is unique in the history of the University of California,” said then-UC President Robert Gordon Sproul to a full house at Wheeler Auditorium. “… tonight, for the first time, we welcome the opportunity of announcing the award of a Nobel Prize for work which was done in its entirety on a campus of the University of California, and which comes to a man who is a member of its faculty.”

Sproul also alluded to the fact that the prize was “the first Nobel in the sciences ever given to a faculty member at a public American university,” noted Steven Finacom, an avid historian of the university. “In the United States, all had gone previously to faculty or researchers at prestigious private institutions.”

Lawrence’s large effort to build the cyclotron, or “atom smasher,” also inaugurated an era of big science, notably the Manhattan Project, which was authorized a year later by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and involved Lawrence, his cyclotron and many other UC Berkeley researchers. The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which in 2013 discovered the long-sought Higgs boson, is the successor of the first 4-inch-diameter atom smasher Lawrence built of glass and red sealing wax in 1930 and that is on display at the Lawrence Hall of Science.

Ernest Lawrence and his family

Following his receipt of the Nobel Prize at a special ceremony at UC Berkeley, Lawrence is congratulated by his family (left to right): Molly Lawrence, his wife; Gunda Lawrence, his mother; John, his brother; and Carl Lawrence, his father. (Photo courtesy of Berkeley Lab)

“Within the history of the development of experimental physics, the cyclotron takes an exceptional position,” the Nobel committee wrote in 1939. “It is, without comparison, the most extensive and complicated apparatus construction carried out so far.”

At the 1940 Nobel ceremony in Berkeley, then-physics department chairman Raymond Birge summarized Lawrence’s career and the history of the discovery, and later he, Sproul and Lawrence posed for photos with the Swedish consul general.

According to Finacom, Birge made another major announcement at the Feb. 29 ceremony: the discovery two days before of carbon-14 by Martin Kamen and Sam Ruben at the UC’s Radiation Laboratory. The discovery would have a profound impact on everything from medical diagnosis and treatment to the dating of fossils.

Lawrence was prescient in his remarks that evening at a banquet following the ceremony, which occurred four years before the detonation of the first atomic bomb. “… there are substantial prospects,” he said, “that (the cyclotron) will be the instrumentality for finding the key to the almost limitless reservoir of energy in the heart of the atom.”