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LANL marks 75 years of discovery

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By Tris DeRoma

When J. Robert Oppenheimer invited the world’s top scientists, physicists, engineers and technicians to Los Alamos in 1943 to build the world’s first nuclear weapon, no one really knew what the results were going to be.

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What they did know however, was that they had to succeed at all costs, as intelligence reports told them the Axis Powers were working toward the same goal. 

Seventy five years later, just yards away from where plans for the first nuclear bomb were developed, the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s 11th director, Terry Wallace, talked about what Oppenheimer’s plans meant to the world, and New Mexico’s future.

“Over a series of lectures, they came up with a plan, and that plan was to do something they had never done before,” Wallace said. “… They weren’t going to be just physicists, they weren’t going to be just chemists, they weren’t going to be just engineers they had to be able to have the world’s best technicians, they had to be able to have the world’s best craft to be able to build the facilities around us.”

Wallace said that blueprint of hiring the best people to work on the world’s most difficult problems has been serving the nation and the world ever since.

“At the end of the war... there was a discussion on where Los Alamos is going to go. Many of the scientists wanted to go back to their homes, they’ve been at war also. But the nation decided we needed the same incredible talent, from scientists to being able to make things, protect things a dedicated workforce to solve national security problems far into the future,” Wallace said at the anniversary celebration.

As Los Alamos National Laboratory employees roamed downtown admiring the antique fire engines and the 2018 Corvettes at a car show on Central Avenue, their children played laser tag in Ashley Pond Park, slurped ice cones, and played in bounce houses. There were also face painting and science demonstrations at LANL’s Bradbury Science Museum.

In one of the booths lining Central Avenue, there was one person trying to return the favor. Michael Nesmith, a lab employee, is chair of a committee trying to get a Virginia class nuclear attack submarine named the USS Los Alamos.

Nesmith had a booth set up on Central Avenue to gather signatures for the effort. He and his committee have been trying to get the sub named the USS Los Alamos since 2016. He said if they present Energy Secretary Rick Perry with a lot of signatures, it may be all the persuasion that’s needed.

“We want to get as many as we can and say ‘look at this Mr. Secretary!’” Nesmith quipped as he busied himself trying to persuade the curious to sign the petition.

Nesmith noted it was the least he could do for a national laboratory that has done so much for the world.

“The impact has been dramatic. Not just in ending the bloodiest conflict in the world, but ever since then. Medical isotopes, all kinds of things,” Nesmith said. “Plus, it’s the 75th anniversary of the relationship the lab has with the Navy… the tests that took place down in the Bikini Islands, sponsored by the Navy, it couldn’t have done without us.  It’s hard to comprehend everything that’s been done here. For me personally, to be associated with the laboratory, it’s such a good feeling.”

Besides bouncy houses and speeches, LANL’s Bradbury Science Museum held scientific demonstrations and lectures on LANL’s contributions to science.

Museum Educator Mel Strong demonstrated nuclear chain reactions through a machine called Pinnochio 2.0. Using air, a re-purposed glove box and many ping pong balls, Strong was able to demonstrate how a nuclear reaction starts.

Strong said Pinnochio 2.0 was built by Ian Aeby, an engineer who once worked at LANL.

Strong also said Aeby’s father, Jack Aeby, was the photographer who took the only color photograph of the Trinity Site nuclear explosion test in 1945.

“When the bomb exploded, they had cameras that were set up to take color photographs, but they underestimated the amount of visible light it was going to produce and everything was overexposed,” Strong said. “But Jack Aeby was taking pictures also, just because, adjusting f-stop and whatnot and he got the only color photograph.”

There have been many other notable achievements in 75 years of LANL’s existence, which include thermonuclear weapons, nuclear powered space travel and coming up with new alternatives to the world’s energy crises.

LANL’s transition into the nuclear age wasn’t easy.

“There was tremendous debate over whether we should pursue the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer, for instance, was opposed,” LANL Historian Alan Carr said. He didn’t think we should build hydrogen bombs for technical and political reasons.”

The decision was made however, when it was realized that it was going to be, ironically make those in power have second thoughts about starting another world war.

“The winning argument was ‘look we can’t let history’s greatest mass murderer (Josef Stalin) have a military capability that we don’t match or exceed. We’ve got to at least try. That was the idea,” Carr said. “We were rapidly losing our lead at that time.”

Carr said it’s possible to track LANL’s exploration of alternative fuels back to 50 years ago.

“If you go to the research library, on top of that building (built around 1975) are solar panels. Those solar panels are original to the building. They were developed between Los Alamos and our corporate partners,” Carr said. “I like to point that out, because people think they’re recent.”

Lujan also spoke about LANL’s accomplishments at the Saturday’s event.

“It was merely about what was done in the early days of the second war, it was what it has been done since then,” Lujan said. “Not only in developing weapons of destruction, which, by irony fate, which helped maintained the peace and freedom, but medicine, in space, and all the other related fields, which can mean so much to mankind if we maintain the peace and our protect our freedom.”