Alvin Weinberg

Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) from 1955 to 1973, Alvin Weinberg became as well known for his ability to communicate the intricacies of science as for his research efforts. The son of Russian emigrants, Weinberg trained in mathematical biophysics at the University of Chicago. More than any other scientist of his generation, Weinberg spoke convincingly of the meaning and intent of “Big Science,” a descriptive term for twentieth-century science that became commonplace among both scientists and policymakers.

Weinberg joined a team of theoretical physicists who worked together at the University of Chicago during World War II and moved to Oak Ridge in 1945. He served as director of ORNL’s Physics Division before becoming the laboratory’s research director in 1948 and director of the entire laboratory in 1955.

Weinberg was one of the first to recognize the importance of exploring other research areas in addition to nuclear science and technology at the national laboratories. In the 1950s ORNL initiated the early biological studies to quantify the effects of radiation on human genetics. In the 1960s additional programs examined the environmental impact of various energy systems ranging from coal-fired steam plants to the desalination of sea water. During the 1970s ORNL conducted comprehensive analyses of the potential impact of energy conservation on overall energy production and consumption.

As a scientist, Weinberg coauthored the standard text on nuclear chain reaction theory with Eugene Wigner, a Nobel laureate and one of the preeminent physicists of the twentieth century. Weinberg also proposed the development of pressurized-water reactors, which became the standard nuclear technology for naval propulsion and most commercial power generation. A vigorous proponent of nuclear energy, he first proposed the formation of the American Nuclear Society.

In 1961 Weinberg chaired President John F. Kennedy’s Panel of Science Information, which produced a landmark report on the communication of science to technical and lay audiences. Entitled Science, Government, and Information, the report has been frequently referred to as “The Weinberg Report.”

Weinberg’s many publications, including the monograph Reflections on Big Science, vividly articulate the issues associated with nuclear energy and, more broadly, the relationship between technology and society. Speaking eloquently on behalf of the national laboratories and science, he coined phrases now firmly embedded in the English language such as “big science,” “technological fix,” “nuclear priesthood,” and “Faustian bargain.”

After leaving ORNL, Weinberg’s influence continued 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 headquartered in Oak Ridge. His interests included efforts to increase public confidence in technology for the “second era” of nuclear energy; to improve the prospects for nuclear diplomacy and containment in Cold War national defense; and to focus the debate over the greenhouse effect within the context of scientific knowledge and research. In retirement, he applied his communication skills to editing the papers of Eugene Wigner and the preparation of his own memoirs. More recently, he has been instrumental in the dedication of a peace bell in Oak Ridge, a gift from the Japanese government that acknowledges the powerful impact of the atom in World War II, but looks ahead to a peaceful future in which negotiations, not conflict, will serve as the primary means for settling international disputes.

Suggested Reading

Alvin M Weinberg, The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer (1994)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Alvin Weinberg
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018