Local hero packed a global wallop

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Arms control group remembers LANL scientist Louis Rosen

By Roger Snodgrass

Louis Rosen’s role as hero, mentor and prophet of nuclear policy was the subject of an affectionate tribute Wednesday night. Rosen, one of the last of the great Manhattan Project physicists, died Aug. 15 at the age of 91, but his memory lives on in the hearts of his friends.

At a meeting of the Los Alamos Committee on Arms Control and International Security, four colleagues who knew Rosen exceptionally well shared their insights with an audience who were pleased to have the chance to contribute some of their own memories as well.

Remembering Rosen is not that hard to do in a town where his was a popular and well-known figure and to which he had contributed so much and in so many ways.

Stories were told of Rosen’s back-channel influence with Washington and Sen. Pete Domenici, his remarkable partnership with his wife Mary, his national and international scientific associations and his dedication to scientific diplomacy with former rivals like the Soviet Union.

Morris Katz said he was out of town in August and missed the memorial service. Last time he saw Rosen, Katz said, “I asked how are you doing and Louis said, ‘Well, I’m still vertical.”

“Louis Rosen is one of my heroes,” said John Hopkins, a former associate director at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the town’s favorite master of ceremonies on historical subjects.

Hopkins recalled Rosen as a catalyst.

“Things just seemed to get done when he was around,” Hopkins said. “And they were done well.”

One of those things was Rosen’s recognition, shared by several others, that the laboratory needed to be prepared to provide sound technical advice on questions of nuclear weapons policy.

“By the 1980s Louis had for some time been campaigning to have the lab create a formal structure to study, publish and consult on nuclear policy issues,” Hopkins recalled.

Others had related goals, including Paul White and Dave Thomson, two other members of the panel, who spoke in turn as the program developed.

They, along with the fourth panelist Molly Cernicek, all played a role in the Center for National Security Studies that Rosen, with characteristic foresight, helped create to fill that national need.

While Rosen is most often remembered for helping Oppenheimer and Teller deliver the knockout punch that ended the War in the Pacific in 1945, the side of Rosen emphasized Wednesday had to do with his influential role in post-Cold War national security.

During construction of the Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility, Rosen’s signature legacy to the laboratory, White said, “Louis also foresaw a day when nuclear testing might no longer be possible and understood that a high-intensity neutron beam might help answer questions about nuclear weapons issues.”

That led to the funding of the Weapons Neutron Research Facility, putting in place a key component for LANL’s future role in national security, that would increasingly emphasize stewardship of the nuclear stockpile after the testing ended in 1992.

On a personal note, White said he was finishing a series of radiation treatments for prostate cancer, made possible by a compact linear accelerated developed at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center and one of the many outgrowths from the meson facility.

Dave Thomson recalled Rosen’s role in the formation of LACACIS, at a time in the mid-1980s when the Cold War had intensified to a high level of threat.

Rosen was the first invited speaker and attracted a crowd of about 50 people.

“We tripled our mailing list with one event,” Thomson said. Norris Bradbury, who was the lab director at the time, was a member of the audience.

“Louis frequently attended LACACIS meetings for over two decades and was always supportive,” he noted.

Even earlier this year, Rosen was a regular at the LACACIS meetings.

Cernicek, the youngest of the panelists, remembered her first meeting with Rosen at CNSS in 1989, when Rosen began a challenging effort to hold a conference on solving energy and environmental problems that would involve scientists from all over the world, including the former Soviet Union and China.

“Louis was one of the pioneers of promoting better understanding of issues surround global sustainability and encouraging global coordination of research to solve these evolving problems,” she said. “He was one of the first Americans invited to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and continued to have very strong relationships to Soviet-born scientists, their children and in some cases their grandchildren, until his death.”

Howard Wadstrom said he knew Rosen socially and used to drive with him down to Pojoaque to the buffet at Cities of Gold.

“He liked to go on Sunday night for crab legs,“ Wadstrom said. “I asked him why he kept going back and forth to the Soviet Union. He said he was doing it for his grandchildren.”

As an example of Rosen’s prophetic powers, Wadstrom recalled that Rosen said before the fact that he was sure the Soviet Union was going to fail.

Later, Wadstrom said, at a party for Domenici, the senator announced that the party was not for him but for Louis Rosen, because Rosen predicted the fall of the Soviet Union Domenici added that he should have been listening to Rosen instead of the CIA.