Tag Archives: history

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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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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The National Synchrotron Light Source

Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source, we would discover, is just that — a light source. And despite the differences in scale and the methods of production, it isn’t so different from the studio lights used by photographers. In each case, the way to get the best image is to shine a really bright light on the subject and take a picture of it. Indeed, the only respect in which the light source’s name can be misleading is that it does not confine itself to the visible light spectrum, but uses everything between infrared and x-rays.

A view of the workspaces surrounding the smaller ring at Brookhavens National Synchrotron Light Source

A view of the workspaces surrounding the smaller ring at Brookhaven's National Synchrotron Light Source

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Welcome!

Hello, World!

We’re Lizzie Wade and Nick Russell. This summer, we will be taking a road trip across the United States before Lizzie starts a Fulbright in Mexico City. On the way, we will visit some of the sites and laboratories that have contributed (and continue to contribute) to the history of high energy physics. We aim to document a particular moment in science and history: as the Large Hadron Collider slowly rumbles to life in Europe, it promises to change not only our understanding of the universe at its most fundamental level, but also the manner in which high energy physics is conducted around the world.

Our itinerary takes us to seven National Laboratories and to the site of the abandoned Superconducing Super Collider (and hopefully to the Very Large Array, just for fun):

Brookhaven National Laboratory (Brookhaven, Long Island, New York)
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tennessee)
Fermilab National Laboratory (Batavia, Illinois)
Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, Illinois)
•The former planned site of the Superconducting Super Collider (Waxahachie, Texas)
Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos, New Mexico)
The Very Large Array (Sorroco, New Mexico)
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, California)
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley, CA)
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA)
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (Stanford, CA)

In addition to this blog, we will be working with Symmetry Magazine, the joint Fermilab/SLAC publication about particle physics, to produce a multimedia piece. We hope you enjoy what we come up with!

-Lizzie and Nick

Questions

Here are some questions I hope to investigate during our trip, in no particular order:

How do labs like Oak Ridge and Los Alamos incorporate their history while moving forward with their scientific and philosophic missions?

Are multi-use labs the way to go in terms of funding, public interest, and continuing relevance?  Can they help physics become more interdisciplinary?  What are the benefits and drawbacks of interdisciplinary science — and how do such collaborations work?

What are the prospects for the International Linear Collider and other future high energy physics experiments?  What are the chances they will be located in the U.S. — particularly at Fermilab?

How does having a physics lab in town change the surrounding community?

What can’t the LHC explore? How can lower energy American labs fill the gaps?

How will the U.S.’s political climate influence support for current and future projects? Has the current administration’s stated support for basic research changed any realities or expectations?

What happened to the Superconducting Super Collider? What lessons have we learned for future projects? Has the science been incorporated into other projects?

What will Fermilab do when the Tevatron shuts down? What will its new niche be now that it is not the highest energy collider in the world?

Do you have questions of your own? Leave them in the comments!

-Lizzie