Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The mystique of Los Alamos National Laboratory

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The mystique of Los Alamos National Laboratory

By Mei Wong
The Daily Magi
October 12, 2046


Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL; previously known at various times as Project Y, Los Alamos Laboratory, and Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory) is one of two laboratories in the United States where classified work towards the design of nuclear weapons is undertaken. The other, since 1952, is Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. LANL is a United States Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory, managed and operated by Los Alamos National Security (LANS), located in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The laboratory is one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world. It conducts multidisciplinary research in fields such as national security, space exploration, renewable energy, medicine, nanotechnology, and supercomputing.

LANL is the largest institution and the largest employer in northern New Mexico, with approximately 9,000 direct employees and around 650 contractor personnel. Additionally, there are roughly 120 DOE employees stationed at the laboratory to provide federal oversight of LANL's work and operations. Approximately one-third of the laboratory's technical staff members are physicists, one quarter are engineers, one-sixth are chemists and materials scientists, and the remainder work in mathematics and computational science, biology, geoscience, and other disciplines. Professional scientists and students also come to Los Alamos as visitors to participate in scientific projects. The staff collaborates with universities and industry in both basic and applied research to develop resources for the future. The annual budget is approximately US$2.2 billion.

The laboratory was founded during World War II as a secret, centralized facility to coordinate the scientific research of the Manhattan Project, the Allied project to develop the first nuclear weapons. In September 1942, the difficulties encountered in conducting preliminary studies on nuclear weapons at universities scattered across the country indicated the need for a laboratory dedicated solely to that purpose.

General Leslie Groves wanted a central laboratory at an isolated location for safety, and to keep the scientists away from the populace. It should be at least 200 miles from international boundaries and west of the Mississippi. Major John Dudley suggested Oak City, Utah or Jemez Springs, New Mexico but both were rejected. Manhattan Project scientific director J. Robert Oppenheimer had spent much time in his youth in the New Mexico area, and suggested the Los Alamos Ranch School on the mesa. Dudley had rejected the school as not meeting Groves’ criteria, but as soon as Groves saw it he said in effect This is the place. Oppenheimer became the laboratory's first director.

During the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos hosted thousands of employees, including many Nobel Prize-winning scientists. The location was a total secret. Its only mailing address was a post office box, number 1663, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Eventually two other post office boxes were used, 180 and 1539, also in Santa Fe. Though its contract with the University of California was initially intended to be temporary, the relationship was maintained long after the war. Until the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, University of California president Robert Sproul did not know what the purpose of the laboratory was and thought it might be producing a "death ray". The only member of the UC administration who knew its true purpose—indeed, the only one who knew its exact physical location—was the Secretary-Treasurer Robert Underhill, who was in charge of wartime contracts and liabilities.

The work of the laboratory culminated in the creation of several atomic devices, one of which was used in the first nuclear test near Alamogordo, New Mexico, codenamed "Trinity", on July 16, 1945. The other two were weapons, "Little Boy" and "Fat Man", which were used in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Laboratory received the Army-Navy ‘E’ Award for Excellence in production on October 16, 1945.

After the war, Oppenheimer retired from the directorship, and it was taken over by Norris Bradbury, whose initial mission was to make the previously hand-assembled atomic bombs "G.I. proof" so that they could be mass-produced and used without the assistance of highly trained scientists. Many of the original Los Alamos "luminaries" chose to leave the laboratory, and some even became outspoken opponents to the further development of nuclear weapons.

In the years since the 1940s, Los Alamos was responsible for the development of the hydrogen bomb, and many other variants of nuclear weapons. Several female scientists also made contributions to work at the lab at this time due to women not generally being preferred for professorships at universities. In 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was founded to act as Los Alamos' "competitor", with the hope that two laboratories for the design of nuclear weapons would spur innovation. Los Alamos and Livermore served as the primary classified laboratories in the U.S. national laboratory system, designing all of the country's nuclear arsenal. Additional work included basic scientific research, particle accelerator development, health physics, and fusion power research as part of Project Sherwood. Many nuclear tests were undertaken in the Marshall Islands and at the Nevada Test Site. During the late-1950s, a number of scientists including Dr. J. Robert "Bob" Beyster left Los Alamos to work for General Atomics (GA) in San Diego. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

With support of the National Science Foundation, LANL operates one of the three National High Magnetic Field Laboratories in conjunction with and located at two other sites Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida and University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. Los Alamos National Laboratory is a partner in the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) located in Walnut Creek, California. JGI was founded in 1997 to unite the expertise and resources in genome mapping, DNA sequencing, technology development, and information sciences pioneered at the three genome centers at University of California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and LANL.

The Integrated Computing Network (ICN), in 2008 the fastest super computer, is a multi-security level network at the LANL integrating large host supercomputers, a file server, a batch server, a printer and graphics output server and numerous other general purpose and specialized systems. The Los Alamos National Laboratory also used to host the arXiv e-print archive. The arXiv is currently operated and funded by Cornell University. In the recent years, the Laboratory has developed a major research program in systems biology modeling, known at LANL under the name q-bio.

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