In the Footsteps (Part 4) June 29, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Computers, In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity, WWII
Last week, we wrote about our visit to the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum. This week, fires have been threatening Los Alamos. Its 12,000 residents have evacuated, and the federal laboratory is closed, with only essential employees still working in the fire zone. But the Historical Society says all the artifacts we wrote about last week are safe. The Environmental Protection Agency is measuring radioactivity in the air there (no elevated levels), and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) officials say that, though the fire has slithered within fifty yards of the laboratory grounds, the 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste stored above ground are not at risk. The area burned in 2000, with no detected elevation in radioactivity.
So today, we meander down the street past the post office to the Bradbury Science Museum, a version of public outreach for LANL.
We’ve long been interested in the missions of museums and have published a couple of articles that explore, in part, the ways aviation museums articulate their goals. The Bradbury Science Museum has a multifaceted, rather aggressive mission: to interpret what LANL does, to promote understanding of LANL’s role in national security, to assist the public in making decisions about national security matters, and to expand knowledge and education in what are known as the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). Museums don’t merely document history, and this museum doesn’t shy away from the political context of the nuclear science it represents. Of course, it’s difficult to imagine that any museum that addresses the role of nuclear science and technology in our lives could avoid entering the political arena.
The first iteration of the museum opened near Fuller Lodge in 1954, mostly to store artifacts that folks thought might be important not to lose. In 1963, some unclassified items were transferred to a space that could be opened to the public, and within two years that stash of artifacts was large enough to demand more space. A few years after that move, in 1970, the museum took its name from Norris Bradbury, the scientist who succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer and served as the director of LANL 1945-1970. In 1981, the museum was overhauled with a snazzy new professional look. In part because it was popular and needed more parking spaces, the Bradbury Science Museum moved to its current location in 1993 and now draws almost 100,000 visitors every year. This year, we were among those visitors.
Though we had a visit to the Bradbury as a primary reason for our return to Los Alamos, the museums, the city, Bandelier National Monument, and the town’s visitors inhabit a peculiar space where awe-inspiring nature abuts cutting-edge technology. We took in a lengthy hike at Bandelier in the morning and spent the afternoon at the Bradbury. We weren’t the only other visitors with this same itinerary, as we saw half dozen others at the Bradbury that afternoon with whom we’d earlier exchanged hello on the Long Trail.
We spent the bulk of our time at the Bradbury in the three main galleries. As the name would suggest, the History Gallery covers the early years of the laboratory at Los Alamos. In addition to standard displays of film footage and newspaper clippings from the era, the gallery also holds some intriguing pieces from the Trinity Test, which exploded the implosion-style, or Fat Man, atomic bomb on July 16th, 1945. Given that photos and film clips of expanding mushroom clouds are among the iconic imagery of the Cold War, it is appropriate that the Bradbury, a museum in the cradle of the atom bomb development, displays a camera used to record the early-morning event at Trinity, the birth of the atomic age.
The History Gallery also contains the Bradbury’s newest exhibit, “Kennedy’s Visit to Los Alamos.” On December 7th, 1962, President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson paid a visit to LANL as guests of the lab’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research. One of LANL’s burgeoning research areas in that era was a joint program with NASA entitled Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application, or NERVA. Kennedy’s visit coincided with the height of the NERVA program, while the lab was in the midst of developing Project Rover and the Kiwi nuclear rocket engines. Several photos depict President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chair Glenn Seaborg looking at models developed for Project Rover. While the directors of LANL and the AEC must have enjoyed showing off the lab’s latest wares with the press snapping photos, many photos depict ordinary aspects of the day, including drinking a cup of coffee. Some thoughtful lab worker at the event had the foresight to retain and preserve the coffee cups. They are marked on their bottoms to indicate which was used by Kennedy and which by Johnson and are on display at the Bradbury.
The Research Gallery offers displays and narratives about the most important of LANL’s current research areas. Among the more engaging exhibits are those on earth and environmental sciences, genomics, and computational biology. We spent less time in this gallery, though, because, while it was rich in information (lots of big placards with photos and text), it had changed the least since our last visit and housed fewer artifacts. That said, the display about how various parts of the lab use particle accelerators piqued Doug’s interest as a former denizen of Fermilab.
The Defense Gallery exhibits, as you might expect, replicas of the first two atomic bombs, which were designed and put together at Los Alamos. Not far from replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs is a giant, inverted yellow cone. The display script indicates that the cone is the approximate size of all of the plutonium that has been created since the beginning of the Manhattan Project. Plutonium isn’t found in nature, at least not in appreciable amounts, and to see its volume equivalent in the gallery makes it seem as if we didn’t produce much with all that money and effort. But if the cone were actually made of plutonium, it would weigh 70 tons. A smaller exhibit nearby hammers home that plutonium is an unusually hefty material. Lifting the first few fist-sized blocks of other materials comes easily (or relatively easy after a five-mile hike in the mountains). The final, plutonium-weight block is heavy—very heavy. We were utterly convinced of plutonium’s most obvious physical characteristic.
Also in the Defense Gallery, though it might just as readily fit into the concepts of history or research, is the exhibit detailing LANL’s role in the development of computing, from humans (mostly young women) punching/keying Marchant calculators to the lab’s first homegrown computer (MANIAC—Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator And Computer) to an alphanumeric soup of machines (IBM 701, IBM 704, IBM 7030, CDC 6600, CDC 7600, CM-2, CM-5, SGI, HP, etc.) and concluding with the lab’s current supercomputer, Roadrunner. In 2008, Roadrunner, built by IBM and taking six years for full functionality, became the world’s fastest supercomputer and the first to break the petaflop—one thousand-trillion operations per second—barrier. By way of comparison, the computer sitting on your desktop would need approximately 100 years to execute as many operations as Roadrunner can accomplish in a day. Three years later, Roadrunner is now the tenth fastest computer in the world. Or it would be, if it is turned on; reports say that LANL has shut down two supercomputers because of the fire.
We’ll have more in our “In the Footsteps” series later this summer (there’s a nuclear museum in Albuquerque too). Next week, however, we turn our attention back to the space shuttle, with a guest post from author Margaret Lazarus Dean on Monday. Then, we are off on our trip to the Space Coast for the last launch, scheduled for July 8. Cross your fingers for an on-schedule launch, then look for photos, videos, and commentary right here at Lofty Ambitions.