Tag Archives: Department of Energy

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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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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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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