It’s the birthday of physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, born in Canton, South Dakota (1901). He was a curious child — at age two, he tried to figure out how matches worked and ended up lighting his clothes on fire. His best friend in Canton was a boy named Merle Tuve, who would go on become a famous geophysicist. The boys built gliders together and constructed a crude radio transmitting station.
Lawrence worked his way through college — he received an undergraduate degree from the University of South Dakota and graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and Yale. He accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1930 he became the youngest full professor there. Lawrence put in 70-hour weeks at the Berkeley Radiation Lab, and he expected everyone else to do the same. The Lab was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It was there that he invented a machine that he called a “proton merry-go-round,” better known as the cyclotron. Lawrence’s first version of the cyclotron was very makeshift — it involved a kitchen chair, clothes racks, and a pie pan — but eventually he produced a more sophisticated device. The cyclotron was a machine that could accelerate particles and then hurl them at atoms to smash the atoms open. This allowed scientists to discover radioactive isotopes of elements and sometimes new elements. In 1940, Lawrence won the Nobel Prize for his invention.