Science is no longer the domain of solitary experimenters

CyclotronSam Kean at The American Scholar:

In 1956, novelist Sybille Bedford mourned the passing of an era in physics—that age where “the laws of the universe were something a man might deal with pleasantly in a workshop set up behind the stables.” This was science as Newton and Darwin practiced it, a solitary genius matching wits with nature. No more. Nowadays, virtually all scientists collaborate, working in teams of three, four, a dozen others. A paper from a particle accelerator experiment or big genome project might include several thousand authors.

Ironically enough, as Michael Hiltzik explains in Big Science, this shift was itself largely the doing of a single genius. Ernest Lawrence is best known today for his 1931 invention of the cyclotron, a “proton merry-go-round” that accelerates subatomic particles, like protons, to high speeds. Located in the Radiation Lab at the University of California at Berkeley, where Lawrence conducted his experiments, the first cyclotron didn’t exactly scream Big Science—it was a mere 4.5 inches in diameter. But it proved remarkably effective for probing the structure of the atomic nucleus, which prompted Lawrence to build a larger model, at 11 inches. This proved still more effective, so he built a bigger one, and then a bigger one. Each new model—27 inches, 37 inches, 60 inches—gave Lawrence a glimpse of new vistas to explore. But the only way to do so was by building bigger and more expensive equipment.

more here.