Director Alvin M. Weinberg: Mr. ORNL

This article appeared in the ORNL Review magazine. For more information on ORNL and its research and development activities, please refer to one of our Media Contacts.

Alvin M. Weinberg

Alvin Weinberg's special gift is his ability to communicate, even to inspire. The son of Russian emigrants who was trained in mathematical biophysics at the University of Chicago, Weinberg, as much or more than any other scientist of his generation, communicated the meaning and intent of "Big Science," a phrase that became commonplace among both scientists and policymakers.

A member of the wartime team of theoretical physicists at Chicago headed by Eugene Wigner, Weinberg moved to Oak Ridge in 1945 and served as director of the Physics Division before becoming Laboratory research director in 1948 and Laboratory director in 1955. As a scientist, he coauthored the standard text on nuclear chain reaction theory with Wigner. Weinberg also proposed the development of pressurized-water reactors, which became the standard for naval propulsion and for most commercial power generation. A vigorous proponent of nuclear energy, he first proposed the formation of the American Nuclear Society.

In 1961 he chaired President John F. Kennedy's Panel of Science Information, which produced a landmark report issued by the White House. The report was entitled "Science, Government, and Information," but it has often been referred to as "The Weinberg Report." Through this effort Weinberg fostered the communication of science to technical and lay audiences.

His many publications, including the book Reflections on Big Science, vividly articulated the issues associated with nuclear energy and more broadly the relationships between technology and society. Speaking eloquently on behalf of the national laboratories and science, he coined phrases, such as "big science," "technological fix," "nuclear priesthood," and "Faustian bargain," which became embedded in the English language.

After leaving the Laboratory, Weinberg continued to influence public scientific policy as director of the Office of Energy Research and Development in President Richard Nixon's White House and as director of the Institute for Energy Analysis. His interests included "the second era" of nuclear energy, national defense, and the greenhouse effect. In retirement, he has applied his communication skills to editing the papers of Eugene Wigner and to preparing his own memoirs. When asked where he obtained his great skill and enormous drive to communicate, he attributed it not to formal English classes but to working as editor of his high school newspaper.

Although literally thousands of people have contributed significantly to the success and prominence of the Laboratory, Weinberg above all others guided the institution in directions later to be recognized as vital to society. He was one of the first to see and communicate the importance of exploring other research areas besides nuclear science and technology at national laboratories. Early biological studies at ORNL to quantify the effects of radiation on human genetics contributed to the acceptability of nuclear power. The introduction of environmental studies using radioactive tracers to understand the impacts of various energy systems on their surroundings became a major feature of ORNL research in the 1960s. Energy conservation studies begun at ORNL in the early 1970s were roundly criticized by industry. Through all of this, Weinberg instilled in Laboratory staff a desire to achieve high excellence as he asked friendly, but penetrating, questions in all areas of research and development.

As indicated by his publications and speeches, Weinberg maintained broad interests in issues of national and global importance. In decade after decade, Weinberg's hand can be seen shaping the programs of ORNL. Throughout his tenure as director, it can be properly said that Alvin Weinberg and Oak Ridge National Laboratory were one.