INSIDE LOS ALAMOS - THE SECRET CITY
By Andrew L. Urban
Thirty years ago, in 1988, Andrew L. Urban obtained a security clearance and spent several days finding out about the amazing people and the cutting edge projects of Los Alamos, birthplace of the atomic bomb. This is his report - some of it obtained with permission, some not - marking the 30th anniversary of his visit.
Michelle studies the stuff in between the solid stuff in space; Bob, an earth/space scientist, is working on satellite instrumentation for nuclear weapons verification; 18 year old Karin wants to be one of the EARLY woman Presidents of the United States; originally a physicist, Ed focuses on studies in non-invasive brain exploration … we’ll hear their stories later. They are all typical of Los Alamos.
When it was built it had no mailing address, no local government: it was hidden away in the remote wilds of New Mexico and not even a map showed its existence. It was closely guarded against unauthorised entry. In those days of 1945, Los Alamos was the town that wasn’t, the secret site of America’s most important weapons research facility.
Ways of killing and ways of curing, instruments of death and of healing are being developed side by side in a desert community in the New Mexico wilderness, away from public gaze, yet at the forefront of scientific knowledge. At Los Alamos, 3000 scientists work among the total staff of 11,650 on projects as diverse as AIDS and SDI (Star Wars).
This is the home of the Manhattan Project which developed the atom bomb under Robert Oppenheimer in 1943/5. It has become a company town, and the company is the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL, but usually called The Lab) an innocuous label for America's most precious weapons/industrial research facility, with a staggering annual budget of US$885 million, coming largely from the Departments of Energy (DOE) and Defence (DOD).
The SDI program, together with its advanced munitions and advanced concepts sub-programs, eats up a quarter of the entire budget.
The place keeps such a low profile that most Americans don't even know where Los Alamos is, never mind what goes on there, often confusing it with the Alamo, or a Mexican village. Still, the Public Affairs Department last year issued 300 press releases on scientific research conducted at LANL. None of these mentioned weapons research, of course. Mostly they talk about life sciences (genetics, toxicology, pathology and the environment) or the Hot Dry Rock program, which is extracting energy from rock at depths of up to 4 kms into the earth's surface.
To gain access to much of the 111 square kms of The Lab areas, security clearance has to be obtained from the DOE, and if a reporter wants to talk about the Star Wars program, he or she needs additional clearance from the SDI headquarters in Washington. All such interviews are taped.
The place maintains a virtually invisible security service of 300, colloquially known as The Pro Force, as well as a Rapid Response Force specially equipped against terrorist attacks. Security is tight, and there have been few breaches, none of consequence.
Of course, visitors can move freely in the town itself, except there is only one bus (driven for school kids by volunteers) and no taxi. There are virtually no tourists here, yet the beauty and grandeur of the Rocky Mountain terrain offer a stunning scenario in winter as well as summer, at 2,300 metres (7,500 feet) above sea level. Nearby, archaeological evidence of the Anasazi Indians of 600 years ago offer fascinating walks around mountainside cave homes, rock carvings and stone remnants of circular structures used for mysterious rituals.
Yet the only visitors that do come here are scientists, making official trips, transported to and from the airport by The Lab's own taxi-bus. They come from interstate and overseas, to exchange knowledge with some of the most brilliant minds in the world. (The reason most of these brains stay for so many years at Los Alamos is simple enough: where else would they be assured of an environment where they can pursue their scientific quests so well equipped and supported.)
The one-strip airport that handles the six and 18 seater commuter aircraft of Ross Aviation (to and from Albaquerque, the nearest proper airport 144 kms away) is unlike other small town airports. Snatches of conversations in the waiting room reflect the business of the town: "The particular idea I have in mind is to follow the motion of the fluid around the nuclei..." And: "Are you doing proton work? I'm trying to figure out where I met you..."
Not the predictable airport conversational gambits, would you say. But predictable this place is not. For a start, the town has a population of about 20,000 and with 11,650 employed at The Lab, there are not many left to do school teaching, shop keeping, hair dressing, petrol pumping, hotel managing, restaurant serving and stuff like that.
Then there is the unique academic environment, the greatest concentration of brain power anywhere in the world. Over 1500 of the scientists have their PhDs, and another 700 or so have a Masters: a similar number have at least one Bachelor's Degree, plus a dozen more hold other types of degrees. Of the 3000 scientists, a third are physicists, a bit over a third are engineers, and 12% are chemists, while almost 10% are math and computer specialists.
The primary mission of Los Alamos is nuclear weapons research: clearly, the staffing figures reflect that mission. The special facilities at The Lab include target fabrication, a plutonium facility, detonator systems and the most powerful scientific computer in the world.
The Lab is also renewing its efforts in space research after a lull of several years. A new nuclear energy propulsion program is now under way.
The SDI program, including the White Horse project which is experimenting with neutron beams, is very much a part of the ongoing research - alongside some less awesome but equally fantastic programs.
More of that later: the first impressions of the town are curiously muted. How can a place like this seem so ordinary? The shops are more or less ordinary, if you overlook the occasional quirk: the cosy bookstore in the shopping mall has the latest best sellers on display in the window. Robert Ludlum's The Icarus Agenda in hardback for example, and right next to it, Standard Mathematical Tables - 28th Edition.
It LOOKS ordinary enough, although that insular feeling of a typical xenophobic small town is missing. This is due in part to the frequency of travel for most of the technical/scientific staff, often internationally. Besides, the outlook here is global, not provincial, and that is perhaps Los Alamos' most unexpected feature. People think in terms of the universe.
Less unexpected, however, are the figures that demonstrate levels of academic concentration among the children of the boffins. The American College Test averages at 15 out of a maximum 36 points. The average for New Mexico State is 17, partly boosted by the Los Alamos average, which at 22 is the highest in the US.
Jennifer Fox scored 26, and she is still not considered particularly bright by Los Alamos standards. (She is the daughter of John Fox, Training Manager at The Lab, and his wife Gail.)
The National High School Merit Award is another criterion, being based on general academic achievement. Schools where one or two pupils receive such an Award usually boast about it endlessly: Los Alamos has had as many as 11 and once scored 18 in the same year.
The children are not entirely without problems, though. Pressure for academic achievement is understandably very strong. For some parents this has backfired and the kids turned from doctorates to drugs, or simply rejected scholarly pursuits for plain good fun. The pressures on the adults are no less intense, and while there is no serious social problem, divorce rates are high.
Crime, however, is virtually non-existent. There has been one murder and one armed robbery in 45 years. And sport is pursued with passion at all ages, all levels, all disciplines. It offers the release of physical exertion to balance the mental strain, and in many cases produces outstanding performances in brawn as well as brain.
The Los Alamos High School girls, for instance, are scoring national wins in soccer, volley ball and swimming at the 87/88 State Championships, and were narrowly defeated for the Championship title in basketball in March.
The boys won soccer, came second in swimming and are among the top 10 in the US in wrestling. In most high schools, a championship in any one sport would be acclaimed as a major achievement, and this school has only 1200 students.
The sorts of events that are staged are Science Fairs. A typical question for a Fair Test may be: How many millilitres of liquid will a paper towel absorb?
One odd thing about Los Alamos outwardly, is that it has a single strand of history: this was The Town That Never Was in the 40s. It was kept secret and established itself from nothing. The only building in the area was a small boarding school for boys of wealthy parents, a bit like Timbertops. The building is still there, now used for conventions and meetings, weddings and parties.
After Oppenheimer had chosen the desolate site in 1943, the area was wire-fenced and mined. For security reasons, the mining records were destroyed and when it was decided to build a town - some years later - it was mine swept. But signs still warn of mine danger, in case they missed one. Or two.
Oct 15, 1965 file photo: “Fat Man” nuclear bomb of the type tested at Trinity Site and dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945, on view for public at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory museum. (Courtesy PhysOrg)
It was set up to build The Bomb: it continues to exist to make The Bomb. Strange history to grow up in, to grow old in. How appropriate that this place sits on five volcanic 'fingers' (called masa) created by a series of massive volcanic explosions a million years ago, leaving the world's largest caldera, The Valle Grande. (The place was clearly destined to be forever linked to big bangs.) Dinner party conversation may be work-related, but there is no sense of foreboding. Like nurses immune to human suffering for protection, scientists are protected by familiarity and the normalcy of life in a sleepy town - perhaps.
Besides, there is so much more to Los Alamos than Star Wars, nuclear weapons and neutron beams. There is The Police Blotter, as its called, published on The Los Alamos Monitor, the local daily. The Blotter is a sort of social device in which the police list the names of those picked up for speeding or drink-driving. The next day, friends and enemies alike read it gleefully.
Los Alamos also has its own 'Western Suburbs', except it is South. The impoverished Espanola is the butt of cruel jokes. A tornado swept through Espanola and did $5 million worth of improvements, for example. At one stage it got so bad the Director of The Lab banned Espanola jokes.
A largely Catholic and Mormon congregation, Los Alamos attends church on Sundays. The most interesting of these is The Immaculate Heart of Mary, where an eloquent Fr Charlie Brown (honest) performs mass in English facing the packed church, accompanied by a band and a choir. The band consists of a Yamaha DX7 keyboard, acoustic guitar and flute. The lyrics are projected onto a giant screen. Six physicists form a male choir for special hymns. In the office near the large entrance, a computer calculates parish revenues and congregation increases. It's a high tech Heart of Mary.
There is coffee and cakes to follow, or brunch at the Los Alamos Inn, which has a complete open buffet for $12, starting with breakfast things like bacon, ham, pancakes and maple syrup, through fresh fruit to chicken and roast rib. This is the only time Alamosians are seen dressed up en masse.
During normal working hours, the accepted dress is jeans and sneakers, casual cords, lumber jackets if its cold and flip-flops (thongs) if it's not. The casual attire reflects the casual atmosphere, despite the nature of the work. No-one has a title before their name, and the only reference to 'Doctor' by name is to the Doctor Pepper soft drink dispensers. Originally, this was another security measure, to avoid indicating who was who and doing what. These days it's used more to level out the ranks.
Project Managers, like Bob Hanold, an earth/space scientist working on satellite instrumentation for nuclear weapons verification, wear jackets if they have visitors or important meetings. After church, Bob may literally take off. He flies a small plane. "It's total escape. Very few people here laze about to relax."
There are about 70 small planes at the airport; some people commute from other towns, such as Santa Fe or even Albaquerque. Most, about 60% of The Lab staff, live in Los Alamos, though, often trecking into the Jemez mountains for hiking or cross country skii-ing, hunting elk or camping.
Morie Pongratz, a space physicist on the BEAR project (Beams Aboard Rockets), rides his bike on a special course he has figured out, and on his wrist wears a gadget that shows his pulse as he goes. After 10 kms it's showing 118 a minute. He's pleased. It's his training for the 65 km Tour de Los Alamos in which he competes every year. "I win the category for Elected Officials Over 200 pounds," he jokes. (He's on the Town Council.)
"This is like growing up in Nirvana," says Bob. "It's stunningly beautiful, sunny, clean...Much of the stress is relieved by some physical activity." But there is still a need for special counselling (provided internally by The Lab) and there are still those who burn-out.
"In the technical world here, if you can't hack it you're a second class citizen immediately. It's a matter of having a 'I'm tough, I can do it' attitude."
Many who live here are also seen to be having a 'having' attitude: most residents come from an upper middle class background, and are well paid. The average Lab salary is US$40,000, and many of the senior scientists are paid around the US$100,000, up to US$130,000. Housing prices reflect the standard and cost of living: not many desert-located towns of 20,000 have US$400,000 mansions by the dozen. Los Alamos does.
Cars, private planes, jewellery and other 'things' are sought after, as much as achievement. Morie Pongratz's 18 year old daughter, Karin, wants to be one of the EARLY woman Presidents of the United States. "She wants to see a woman in the White House well before she is old enough," explains Morie. "So Karin is majoring in journalism and political science."
Cheryl Pongratz is Principal of the Aspen Elementary School, which caters to a lower socio-economic group, some from Mexican Indian families in the region. But many (20%) of the children are from single parent homes. She says there is less pressure on the children here; the Pongratz family also resisted putting too much pressure on their children. "But the kids in this town put a lot of pressure on themselves," she adds, "primarily for their parents' sake. And to try and surpass their parents achievements."
A high school pass is just the start. A PhD - or a PhD from a more prestigious university - is the ultimate carrot.
Cheryl is typical of married women in Los Alamos in that she works. Nearly 80% of mothers work in the town, either to maintain expensive lifestyles or promising careers. Sometimes it's from boredom.
ED FLYNN - BIO-PHYSICS
Flynn is the head of P6, a new group focused on studies in non-invasive brain exploration. Originally a physicist, Flynn has been awarded a Fellowship, the highest honour The Lab can bestow.
He switched disciplines four years ago after his wife was fatally wounded in a car accident and he watched her helplessly as she stayed in a prolonged coma. His prime personal goal is to understand how to handle comatose patients. Is a lack of external response an accurate reflection of what and how they perceive the world.
To do this, Flynn is experimenting on the magnetic fields of the brain, detected by seven sensors inside a helium-filled 'skull cap' that is cooled to - 270* C. The fields, like small arcs, should help locate where certain functions are performed in the brain.
The experiment is inside a room made with 'new metal' which shields it from external magnetic fields. This is essential because the brain's fields are about one billionth the strength of the earth's own magnetic field.
They flicker as brain cells send/receive electric signals, looping out, as a flash of electric current emanates from the cells mentally processing a sound, a thought, a perception, or movement.
"I am trying to map and to understand the functionality of the brain," says Flynn. "Our studies so far show the extreme specialisation of the brain, and its 'plastic' quality: it's remouldable. We want to know where things happen, and the variation between physical and thinking stimuli."
There is a complex geometric cognitive test for spatial relationships which Flynn has devised, using computers, which he programs himself.
The work links in with Artificial Intelligence experiments since visual perception is a primary problem there. "Knowing how the brain/eye works will help," he says with quiet understatement. "We're at the infancy of that knowledge."
The neuromagnometer has been adapted for this purpose, and it uses a device called SQUID: Superconducting Quantum Interface Device.
Ed's techniques can localise and diagnose brain problems. But there is a long way to go: "There are 100 billion neurons in the brain - we're trying to figure out what as many as possible of them do."
The current project is to find where in the brain the thumb and forefinger of the right hand are controlled. "The next phase is to see what happens with a stroke victim...if we can understand this, we can rehabilitate - once we know where a new part of the brain can take over old tasks."
The longer term goal is a compact instrument that looks like a football helmet which helps paraplegics, by recording the brain's magnetic field and by-passing the severed spinal column to enable the patient to walk.
"It's the ultimate prosthetic device...and it's perhaps seven to ten years away," say Ed.
The US Army is also keen to have Ed discover whether The Right Stuff is detectable in the brain, which would be a useful tool in its selection process.
Ed skis cross country, often because he has to. He lives 22 kms away in the mountains, where he enjoys watching elk and bears, and long hikes on archeological sites. Once, he played flute and trumpet, and the Irish whistle. "Now I just listen." He has been working at Los Alamos for 30 years.
MICHELLE FLUCKEY THOMSEN - SPACE PLASMA PHYSICS
"It's the study of the stuff in between the solid stuff in space," Michelle explains at once, and with elegant simplicity. 'The stuff' comprises 99% of space, though, so there is much work to do for young Michelle, a physicist from the University of Iowa, and a seven year resident of Los Alamos.
Fluckey is Michelle's maiden name, and is usually employed as a middle initial. Mr Thomsen is a dermatologist working in the town.
The studies Michelle carries out are designed to maintain the nuclear testing verification system operated by the US, including high altitude nuclear explosions. "But we go beyond that to try and figure out how the universe fits together," she adds.
"What excites me is to see how nature puts things together, such as the solar wind supersonic flow, and the earth is sitting in that. How does nature manage to do that...interesting microscopic processes."
Her work links in with astrophysics, and her tools are electronic sensors and computers. Space plasma is ionised gas made of electrically charged particles. It's physical.
"Occasionally, accidentally, you run across something outside your realm of experience. That's exciting. And there are probably a lot of surprises left in planetary studies," she adds.
Michelle finds The Lab "a stimulating environment. In fact, we've been accused of having an unfair advantage by having so much informal cross examination as we are constantly rubbing shoulders with each other here, that ideas emerge pretty hard to shoot down. Communication makes it more dynamic."
As for being a woman, Michelle has not felt discriminated against: "Nor, I hope, have I benefited."
TONY BEUGELSDIJK - ROBOTICS
The handling of hazardous nuclear materials is the prime motivation for robotics research at Los Alamos. Tony, a chemist originally, is applying robotics to chemical technology, with the objective being to move very small particles of material. "You really begin to understand the complex human thought processes involved in even the smallest manipulations," he says.
The frontier for this science is ultrasophisticated computer software which can instruct robots to move material from A to B, without the need for the minute programming in between, to achieve the smooth flow of a human hand/arm.
Anthropomorphic robots - with hand/wrist/arm/elbow/shoulder joints - are also being developed and adapted to be used in the nuclear 'glove box' to handle plutonium. At present, heavily protected humans have to reach inside two giant 'gloves' and put the waste material in a plastic bag to seal and remove it from the enclosed work environment.
This awkward and very dangerous 'bag-out' process will be one of the major steps in robotics - when it's perfected.
Robotics research at Los Alamos is also part of an international effort to determine the complete genetic composition of humans. "We are applying robotics to recombinant DNA research...robotics is being developed to handle the material, and repetitive, minute work. Microlitres (millionths of a litre) have to be transferred or handled billions of times."
This is the Human Geno Project, which is attracting new funds to the robotics existing budget of US$1.5 million.
One of the most sophisticated of the new generation of robots will help in the process. It is the Gantry robot, capable of extreme precision - up to 101,000 micrometres (millionths of a centimetre) - and fast, with speeds of 101 cms per second.
"We use it for high temperature, high risk, nuclear tasks."
LARRY SHERMAN - THE AURORA PROJECT
Inside the large metal sphere, the tiny gold ball seems incongruous, its modest size and soft golden lustre out of place in a harsh, technology-filled environment. It is a potential miniature sun - a tiny pellet capable of releasing immense relative energy.
This is the focus - literally - of the Aurora Project. Instead of fission, the idea is to use a fusion process to create intensity, but unlike a nuclear device. Laser beams can concentrate energy onto a very small spot, in a very short time. This burns off the outside and compresses the pellet, to get thermo nuclear fusion, and draw power. It duplicates a bomb on a very small scale.
This is a miniature bomb, in fact, one that can sidestep the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty for the ongoing process of weapons design.
The Aurora Project is a long term one, its aim to improve the laser intensity on a small target - the thickness of two human hairs, in fact. The Star Wars scientists are watching the project with interest, since there are potential applications for them, too. There are also mutual areas of expertise, including the building of very large lasers and guiding them.
Larry Sherman is enthusiastic: "We have proved the capability of the concept...only the cost stops us," he says. The annual budget for Aurora is already US$10 million. It requires multiple disciplines to work together, principally optics and laser physics.
Larry says the goal is identified by "how many watts we can get onto a target. To do the job we need 10 megajules. We have done 10 kilojules, but not on a small enough target." There is a long way to go. But laser technology is moving quickly. Larry says proudly that at Aurora they can already get 96 pulses onto the target - in the same split second. It's all done with mirrors.
Ironically enough, the building used for Aurora used to be a warehouse for apples somewhere across America. It was bought because it had all the gear to maintain a steady temperature, essential to avoid 'bunching' laser beams.
From the pulse source to the target (deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen that approximates the sun) is a distance of 1 km. The pulse reaches it in 3 micro seconds, or 3 millionth of a second. It's all over the moment you push the button. A new sun is born.
THE FOX FAMILY
They live in Arizona Street, Los Alamos, and have done for the past 17 years while the two children, Jennifer and Josh, grew up. It's the only home they have owned, a comfortably modest two-storey Government built timber house which the Foxes extended two years after moving in, shortly after Josh was born. He is now 16, Jennifer is 19, attends a University in another State, and works 16 hours a week at the computer centre "to pay her phone bills to her boyfriend", according to her mother, Gail.
The boyfriend (John Hanold, son of Ellis and Bob, the earth/space scientist) has a pilot's licence like his father, and lives to fly. He is studying Business Administration with Aviation Application at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. Top Gun country. He has seen Top Gun 31 times and knows the script by heart. "It's the dumbest movie I ever saw, but I love the flying," he says. Jennifer's favourite movie is The Far Side.
John Fox came to Los Alamos as a High School Teacher, and started working at The Lab eight years later as an electrical engineer, to train technicians.
Gail taught, too, "but I learnt to play here. It's difficult to do anything other than secretarial work here unless you have a scientific degree." She still teaches, though, only it's aerobics, usually twice a day at the Lab's gym. Originally from upstate New York, she still calls it home.
John was a 'shop teacher' giving instruction in electronics, draughting, photography, printing, wood and metalworking, graphic arts, maths and even journalism. A practical sort of man, his garage has a workshop in it, and he has made some fine jewellery as well as home improvements.
He skis, plays golf, ice hockey, tennis and basketball. And works Monday to Friday in the belly of the beast, trying to manage training programs for scientists who have to learn to be managers. Not easy. Hunting elk is easy.
A visible community figure, John is a member of the local Kiwanis (like Rotary) where guests are invited to lunch - like the odd visiting Australian journalist, and a man called Delbert F. Sundberg, Member of the New Mexico State House of Representatives. Fox is also active on the school board, and Delbert F. Sundberg was instrumental in getting a proposed Los Alamos school budget cut thrown out. He deserved a free lunch.
There is interstate tv, a local radio station, one cinema, and even a few bars and restaurants, but people tend to make their own entertainment, usually at home or in sport and recreation. There is an ice rink, shaded from the sun, and there are plenty of open spaces, scenic spots, and fabulous hikes. There is no through traffic in Los Alamos and no car dealer. People wanting to sell/buy a car go to what's affectionately known as The Lemon Lot, a public car park in town, and a few BMWs, 4WDs and various other vehicles can be found with a notice stuck to the windscreen, with the seller's phone number.
Life is middle class, friendly, suburban: the Fox family is comfortable and satisfied. When asked what they would change about Los Alamos, Gail had no specific wish and John just wanted a good lake.
April 2, 2018
This article was first published in The Weekend Australian Magazine in 1988.