Los Alamos: Moving Beyond the Manhattan Project

Blueprints of the atomic bombs developed at Los Alamos during World War II are on sale today in the town's bookstore.

Blueprints of the atomic bombs developed at Los Alamos during World War II are on sale today in the town's bookstore.

No tour of American science would be complete without a stop in Los Alamos, New Mexico. From 1943 to 1945, the U.S. government sequestered many of the world’s leading physicists on this high desert plateau under the auspices of the Army Corps of Engineers Manhattan Engineer District with the mission to build an atomic bomb before the end of World War II. Until they accomplished their goal, hundreds of scientists, along with their families and a large administrative and technical staff, disappeared from their former lives, leaving behind only an address for a P.O. Box in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (You can check out all their staff badge photos here.)

While most of Los Alamos’s new inhabitants left soon after the use of their invention ended World War II, some stayed. The town of Los Alamos soon became a place with real addresses, accessible roads, great mountain biking, and some of the best public schools in the state of New Mexico. But it still carries the weight of its history, with blueprints of Little Boy and Fat Man (the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) for sale in the town bookstore, and classified weapons research ongoing at the lab. We went there not really sure what we would be allowed to see or how we would feel about it. But while the history was problematic, the current (unclassified) science we saw exhibited many of the same traits we observed at other labs: creativity, ingenuity, and a lot of foil.

Upon observing the success of the Trinity "gadget" on July 16th, 1945, Oppenheimer visibly relaxed years of built-up tension then quoted a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Success it was: just 0.025 seconds after detonation, the explosion was several hundred meters across. As physicist Kenneth Brainbridge remarked: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

Upon observing the success of the Trinity "gadget" on July 16th, 1945, Oppenheimer visibly relaxed years of built-up tension then quoted a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Success it was: just 0.025 seconds after detonation, the explosion was several hundred meters across. As physicist Kenneth Brainbridge remarked: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

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Science at the Edge of Human Scale: the Very Large Array

While planning our trip, Lizzie and I realized that we would have an awkward amount of extra time between our visits to the Superconducting Super Collider and Los Alamos. Though the drive from east Texas to New Mexico is formidable enough to require a night’s stay along the way, it has such high speed limits and so few turns that the miles tick by more quickly than just about anywhere else in the country. But since the July 4th weekend meant that we had to be at Los Alamos by the 2nd – unless they’re in the middle of a particularly intensive run, physicists get the same holiday weekends as the rest of us – there was only about a half-day to spare.

This wasn’t enough time to accommodate our original idea of camping at White Sands and driving by the Trinity Test Site (which is closed to the public all but two days a year anyway). But it turned out to be just the right amount of time to visit the accurately if unimaginatively named Very Large Array (VLA), located about 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico.

The heart of the Very Large Array

The heart of the Very Large Array

A wider view of the heart of the VLA. As the view extends outward, the scale starts to become apparent.

A wider view of the heart of the VLA. As the view extends outward, the scale starts to become apparent.

Click through to view an enormous panorama of the VLA. Even though the Array was not at its most outspread position, this enormous image still does not capture the whole thing.

Click through to view an enormous panorama of the VLA. Even though the Array was not at its most outspread position, this enormous image still does not capture the whole thing.

Nestled on a vast, mountain-ringed, 7000-foot plateau in the central New Mexican desert, the VLA is safe from the interfering radio waves of just about anything that doesn’t come from space. Though it is comprised of 27 separate dishes, the observatory operates as a unified whole: by interferometrically combining the data from each dish, the array can simulate the results of a single radio telescope up to 22 miles wide.

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Making Big Science Smaller: Accelerator Technology

The story goes that after Ernest Lawrence came up for the design for the first cyclotron, he raced from the Berkeley library shouting, “I’m going to be famous!” His prediction was spot on: the cyclotron was the first particle accelerator, the first machine that could study matter on its smallest scales. Since it was became the model for all subsequent accelerators, its invention established Lawrence’s place as one of the most important and influential physicists of the 20th century.

Eighty years later, accelerators range from the relatively low-energy machines used to treat cancer in single hospital rooms to the Large Hadron Collider, which crosses an international border and gets us to energy levels last seen fractions of second after the Big Bang. Up until now bigger has meant better in terms of accelerators, but as we look forward to the proposed International Linear Collider and beyond, many physicists are investigating how to fit the biggest of Big Science onto a tabletop.

New accelerator technology at Fermilab

New accelerator technology at Fermilab

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Argonne: The Future’s Past

Like Oak Ridge, Argonne National Laboratory serves as a living witness to the continuity of American 20th century physics: after its first incarnation as part of the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory (the group that first successfully isolated Plutonium), it was the first research site to be designated a National Laboratory after the war. In the sixty-five years between some of the world’s first nuclear reactor research and today’s most cutting-edge accelerator development, there was hardly a science-and-technology subject in which Argonne didn’t have a hand.

This history is written all over the lab, even as it is already carving itself a place in the 21st century:

The beautiful but abandoned Building 330, which housed the 1950s-era Chicago Pile 5 reactor. Argonne was also the second home of Enrico Fermi's Chicago Pile 1, which was moved to the lab from the University of Chicago in 1943 and renamed Chicago Pile 2.

The beautiful but abandoned Building 330, which housed the 1950s-era Chicago Pile 5 reactor. Argonne was also the second home of Enrico Fermi's Chicago Pile 1, which was moved to the lab from the University of Chicago in 1943 and renamed Chicago Pile 2.

In an amazing contrast, old warehouses lodge some of the world's most cutting-edge research.

In an amazing contrast, old warehouses lodge some of the world's most cutting-edge research.

Argonne's obviously much newer Advanced Photon Source, which produces the brightest x-rays in the western hemisphere.

Argonne's obviously much newer Advanced Photon Source, which produces the brightest x-rays in the western hemisphere.

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Congrats to the LHC!

Congratulations to the Large Hadron Collider scientists for achieving the first collisions in their mammoth machine! My favorite coverage of the collider’s warmup comes from the Boston Globe’s The Big Picture, which recently featured a couple of dozen screen-sized images of the LHC: check it out.

-Nick

Who’s afraid of the Superconducting Super Collider?

The site of the abandoned Superconducting Super Collider.

The site of the abandoned Superconducting Super Collider.

The Superconducting Super Collider is rarely discussed anymore, but its ghost has haunted high energy physics for the last 16 years. Slated to begin operations in 1999 in Waxahachie, Texas, the SSC would have been nearly three times as powerful as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Had it been completed, we would probably not be waiting with bated breath for the hints of the Higgs Boson from the LHC: the Higgs and a slew of other physics would most likely be among the recent accomplishments of jubilant experimental physicists.

Alas, after ten years of planning and $2 billion in construction costs, Congress pulled the plug on the project in 1993. Today, several of the buildings and 14 miles of the planned 54-mile-long tunnel sit abandoned in the Texas desert — the tunnel intentionally filled with water in order to preserve it. Despite talk of turning the site into a mushroom farm or a data center, the site hasn’t been used for much other than a filming location for Universal Soldier: The Return, which even we aren’t curious enough to watch.

But wondering about what’s actually there, Nick and I decided to search for its remains on our way from Chicago to Los Alamos.

Lizzie comes face to face with the greatest unrealized dream in American particle physics.

Lizzie comes face to face with the greatest unrealized dream in American particle physics.

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The Battleship in the Soudan Mine: MINOS Part II

The MINOS Far Detector, buried 2,341 feet beneath the earth in the Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota. A mural by Joseph Giannetti about the power of science is painted on the right wall.

The MINOS Far Detector, buried 2,341 feet beneath the earth in the Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota. A mural by Joseph Giannetti about the power of science is painted on the right wall.

After visiting the point of origin of the MINOS neutrinos on our Fermilab tour at the beginning of the trip, it seemed a fitting conclusion to stop by their destination as my own road neared its end. So with Lizzie in Mexico, I made the Summer’s last science-related stop at the Soudan Mine with my friend Sam on our way back across the country.

As discussed in our previous post, the MINOS experiment uses a beam of neutrinos called NuMI (Neutrinos at the Main Injector) produced by decaying protons from Fermilab’s Main Injector. These neutrinos travel 450 miles through the earth to the 2341-foot deep Soudan Mine in northeast Minnesota (and beyond, of course), where physicists can isolate the Far Detector from just about any interference. Despite the fact that the detector is shaped like an enormous stop sign, only a tiny number of neutrinos obey the symbolic request: of all the trillions of neutrinos produced by NuMI, the Far Detector sees only about one a day.

Courtesy of Fermilab.

Courtesy of Fermilab.

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