Monthly Archives: June 2010

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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