In the Footsteps (Part 5) August 3, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Radioactivity, WWII
Earlier this summer, we traveled to New Mexico to walk in the footsteps of those men and women who developed the world’s first nuclear weapons. We return this week to that series about the landscape and museums of New Mexico.
To read Part 1 (Photos of New Mexico’s Nuclear Past), click HERE.
To read Part 2 (Lamy, New Mexico), click HERE.
To read Part 3 (Bandelier National Monument & Los Alamos Historical Society Museum), click HERE.
To read Part 4 (Los Alamos & the Bradbury Science Museum), click HERE.
After several days of making our way through America’s atomic past in the birthplace of the atom bomb, we decamped Los Alamos, La Fonda, and Santa Fe to head south for Albuquerque. Our destination was the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH). Located on the southeastern edge of the city, just a stone’s throw away from Kirtland Air Force Base and the Sandia Foothills, the museum, which was formerly known as the much-easier-to-say (and type) National Atomic Museum, states as its mission to serve “as America’s resource for nuclear history and science.”
The NMNSH is a Smithsonian Institution affiliate, as is the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas (for our post on that, click HERE), and it exudes the granite cool competence that one expects from the Smithsonian. This incarnation of the museum opened its doors in the fall of 2009, and it averages about 70,000 visitors a year. The NMNSH has eleven exhibit areas, and though we walked through each of them, we were naturally drawn to some more than others.
The first exhibit we visited is entitled “The Decision to Drop.” It contains a wide array of artifacts from the era of the Manhattan Project. The first piece of history that grabbed our attention was a calutron, a device used in the uranium separation process. These devices function by taking advantage of the slight difference in the atomic mass of U-235 and U-238. Inside the calutron, electromagnets bend a passing ionized beam of uranium. Each uranium isotope is deflected to a different degree and can then be collected at different points.
The calutron at the NMNSH is an original one, used during WWII at Oak Ridge plant Y-12. Calutrons and Y-12 are notable for some of the more interesting stories of the entire project. During the war, shortages of copper were acute. Given that the calutrons were, at their cores, electromagnets—iron bars wrapped by copper wire—this was an enormous problem. The solution: silver. Electrically similar to copper, silver also had another advantage: if you knew where to shop, it was available in abundance. When you had the kind of clout that General Leslie Grove and the Manhattan Project enjoyed, you could shop at the U.S. Treasury. And they did. In August 1942, Groves’s aide-de-camp began negotiations with the U.S. Treasury to take delivery of 6000 tons of silver. Eventually the Manhattan Project and the Y-12 calutrons would consume 14,700 tons of silver. That’s 428,749,990 troy ounces, or $17,188,587,099 in today’s dollars.
Perhaps the most remarkable artifact in the Decision to Drop exhibit, the one that attracts visitors’ rapt attention and about which docents like to talk, is the 1941 Packard limousine used to convey V.I.P.s from the train station in Lamy to and around Los Alamos. After its manufacture, the limo was modified by a coachworks maker to enable it to carry upwards of fifteen passengers at a time. But just a few years ago, this automobile was a castoff hulk sitting in a nearby junkyard. Now, the dramatic curves of the limo’s hood and fenders and its preposterously long, stretched slab sides are showroom-floor-new and painted in an era-appropriate olive drab. This car, almost lost as trash, matches the photographs of yesteryear.
Nearby the limo sits another car, a 1942 Plymouth. Though this car wasn’t actually a part of the Manhattan Project, it is correct for the time period, and it is arranged in a dramatic scene meant to reenact another famous moment in the history of the Manhattan Project: the arrival of the plutonium core at the Trinity site. Sitting the car’s back seat is a facsimile of the box that carried the plutonium from Los Alamos to McDonald’s farmhouse and, ultimately, to the Gadget, the lab-bench experiment that became the world’s first atomic bomb.
Other pieces from Trinity, including a seismograph used at the test site, and a Fat Man-style bomb case that was manufactured at the lab in the summer of 1945, sit nearby the car. Each one adds its own sentence or punctuation mark to the story of the Manhattan Project.
We’ve spent a fair bit of time in the Los Alamos and Santa Fe area over the past few years, and we’ve read a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction and a couple that are probably somewhere in between. At this point, it was easy for the two of us to stare at the tiny warning plate on the limo’s dash—Do Not Exceed 20 MPH—and to imagine the restless, wrung-out Oppenheimer and handful of his trusted confidantes, perhaps Norris Bradbury, maybe George Kistiakowsky, making their way the 200 miles from Los Alamos to Trinity, anxious to see what would happen, hoping it would work, worrying it would be a dud, and perhaps even fearing it would work.
We’ll cover the rest of the NMNSH in a second post next week. Keep reading because there’s more to these artifacts.
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
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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.
In the Footsteps (Part 3) June 22, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Physics
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To read Part 1, click HERE.
To read Part 2, click HERE.
“She heard a deep croaking sound and looked up. When she had walked out on this land for the first time, she had heard that sound and looked at her feet for a frog—midwestern girl. But then she realized the croaking came from a tree. A frog caught in a tree? She imagined a frog tethered to the trunk of a pinion, drying out in the sun. Then she saw the raven sitting on a branch; he pumped his chest and sounded like a bullfrog.”
We visited the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum for the first time in the summer of 2007. Doug was attending the Particle Accelerator Conference in Albuquerque, and we tacked on a few days to the end of the trip to visit Santa Fe and Los Alamos. We were grateful for the cool air of the high desert, an easy twenty-degree drop in temperature from the deep baking of Albuquerque. As soon as we got out of our rental car, we heard that bullfrog-like croak. We’d both finished reading Changing Light in the weeks before the trip, and we somehow knew to look up into the tall pine to locate an ink-black raven, large and only too proud to claim responsibility for the guttural sound.
When we made our way to Los Alamos at the end of last month, we returned for another visit of the Historical Society Museum. Like the raven in Changing Light, Los Alamos and its role in the Manhattan Project is a topic about which we’d read and watched documentaries. The Historical Society is located on Los Alamos’ famous Bathtub Row, the street so named during the early days of the Manhattan Project because its houses were the only ones in town (in the very beginning, Los Alamos wasn’t even a town, just a smattering of buildings) with bathtubs.
The earliest residents of the Pajarito Plateau inhabited the region long before the exigencies of war brought the Manhattan Project’s eclectic collection of scientists, engineers, and soldiers to the area. Between 1175 and 1250, the Pueblo peoples began to settle the area. The Tewa and Keres from what’s now Arizona were the first in the area, and other groups arrived later. A vast array of cliff dwellings can be seen at Bandelier National Monument, where we hiked on two separate occasions during last month’s visit to New Mexico. One of our hikes, to the kiva nestled in the natural stone cutout of the Alcove House, required firm grip and steady foot to negotiate the system of ladders and narrow pathways. In the end, the breathtaking vista of the canyon from atop the kiva made any qualms about the climb seem silly, insignificant.
Nearer in time to the establishment of the Manhattan Project, by 1887, the railroad was close enough that homesteaders began to dot the region. Only two of the homesteading cabins remain. One has been moved to the Historical Society, which restored the cabin for its grand opening last year.
The Los Alamos Historical Society Museum itself sits next to Fuller Lodge, a large, wooden building that predates the nuclear weapons laboratory work of the 1940s. In fact, the museum chronicles the Los Alamos Ranch School, started by Ashley Pond in 1917 to offer boys with health problems a lifestyle that would make them stronger adults. In those years, Fuller Lodge was the Big House, where asthmatic and otherwise peaked boys attended classes, ate together, and slept on the open-air, wrap-around porch even in winter. As students, the boys all belonged to the Boy Scouts, Los Alamos Troop 22, and learned horseback riding along with academic subjects. Among its graduates was author Gore Vidal, John S. Reed (president of the Santa Fe railroad), Frederick Pullman (President of Northern Trust), and Bill Veeck (owner of the Chicago White Sox, perhaps most famous for Disco Demolition Night at Comisky Park). Beat Generation figure William S. Burroughs attended the school as well, but he left without graduating.
The museum’s inclusion of the location’s pre-atomic eras—and the Native Americans, homesteaders, and boys at the Ranch School—reminded us that when one walks in the footsteps of others, they, too, have walked in others’ footsteps.
In 1942, General Leslie Groves decided the Manhattan Engineer District needed a central laboratory, and the project’s scientific director J. Robert Oppenhiemer suggested Los Alamos after having spent considerable time in the remote, mountainous desert area of New Mexico. The Ranch School was told to hurry up the schoolyear (the school graduated its final class in February, 1943, after an abbreviated calendar) and was paid $225 per acre for their property. The homesteaders, on the other hand, were paid only $7-15 per acre, a fact that came out later and, in 2004, led to a Congressional fund set up to more fairly compensate those former residents.
The museum puts its emphasis squarely on the lived experiences of the lab’s inhabitants in the war years, leaving the technical side of the development of the atomic bomb to the nearby Bradbury Museum. The Historical Society is filled with photos of Manhattan Project denizens going through their frenetic paces. Leisure activities are a favorite subject in photos: dances, ballgames, and mealtimes. Artifacts that fulfilled useful purposes in their lives—a jukebox and chairs from the PX—fill one exhibit. Surviving pieces of one of the original guardhouses, the gatekeeper’s portal to a place that was sometimes known as Shangri-La, serves as a useful reminder that The Hill (another nickname for the laboratory) was a military outpost with all of the secrecy and regimentation that that entails.
The guardhouse exhibit, replete with numerous security badges from the Manhattan Project, also functions as a useful locus for anecdotes about how the civilians bridled under military routine. One famous scientist replaced the photo on his badge with that of dog; the switch went undetected for sometime. A young woman who worked in the Tech Area took to placing her badge on the back pocket of her jeans. When stopped by a guard and admonished, she’s reputed to have told the guard that was where he was looking anyway when she walked by, so she was just trying to make his job easier.
Eventually, the Los Alamos Historical Society will open the Oppenheimer House, labeled T-111, to the public. It’s a cottage built in the late 1920s with a living room, study, kitchen, and sleeping porch. The original kitchen was turned into a dining room, which the Oppenheimers considered a must-have, and a new kitchen was added. Much of the original detail—the furnace, the kitchen counters and cabinets, the fireplaces—remains. The house already belongs to the Historical Society, but its current residents, who arrived in Los Alamos in 1945 and moved into the Oppenheimer House in 1956, can live there indefinitely.
As we think about what it means to walk in the footsteps of atomic scientists, we wonder how the addition of the Oppenheimer House will add to and shift the story. Historic landmarks offer us a way to understand a time by attaching it to a place. The objects in the places suggest the past lives lived, as if they are traces of actual people now gone. These places of historical significance become ways of interpreting history and of understanding how we came to be who we are as a community.
In the Footsteps (Part 2) June 15, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Railroads, WWII
To view more photographs (different photographs!) and Part 1 of our series “In the Footsteps,” click HERE.
Henry Cullen, Anna’s grandfather, was a Pullman conductor on The Chief, one of the Santa Fe Railway’s famous named trains, its route spanning two-thirds of the country, from Chicago to Los Angeles. During the last two years of World War II, Henry noticed something odd: a steady stream of men with foreign accents, voices inflected with the tones of middle and Eastern Europe, lots of German, were getting off the train in Lamy, New Mexico. The place was beautiful, with mountains rising in the distance no matter where you looked. But there wasn’t much there. Even the famed Harvey House El Ortiz, with its quaint hacienda-like atmosphere and its gorgeous Mary Colter-designed interior, was an open lot next to Lamy’s Santa Fe station, having been shuttered in 1933, burned in 1938, and razed in 1943.
It was only in the denouement of the war, the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, when news about Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Manhattan Engineer District was released to the public, that it became clear to Conductor Henry Cullen what was going on in the high-desert near Lamy and who those mysterious men riding his train had been. Scientists like Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and Niels Bohr, some traveling under assumed names (Enrico Fermi = Ed Farmer, Niels Bohr = Nicholas Baker), arrived in Lamy from their academic posts at the University of Chicago and the East Coast and also from Berkeley and the West Coast.
Lamy is an even quieter town now. The one-hundred-year-old Amtrak station is manned by Vince, who gave us the historical and cultural lay of the land when we visited to walk in the footsteps of the nation’s atomic scientists. Vince pointed out the geodetic marker placed into the outside wall of the depot by the National Geodetic Survey, which maintains a database of these reference points. Vince seemed especially pleased that someone thought the Lamy train station would be around for long enough to make it an appropriate reference point for the larger landscape.
When the Manhattan Project scientists arrived in Lamy, a specially designed car—a Plymouth sedan that had been extended limo-style—was waiting for them. The car is now at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque. We’ll write a separate post about that museum, but the car is especially intriguing because it was almost lost forever. Someone saw the beat-up vehicle in a local junkyard and thought he recognized it. The serial numbers matched the records from the Manhattan Project, and the limo was restored, using photographs to match even the upholstery to its WWII look.
From Lamy, the scientists were chauffered to Santa Fe, just under twenty miles away. They would drive past La Fonda, a destination hotel spot at the end of the Santa Fe Trail since 1607. The current building went up in 1921 and was purchased by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway three years later. The railway leased the hotel to Fred Harvey, and it remained a Harvey House until 1968. Once again, like she did for so many of the California, New Mexico, and Arizona Harvey Houses, Mary Colter designed the interior spaces to match her vision of the American West. We imagine scientists on their way to or from Los Alamos—or on a brief respite from The Hill—might sit at the bar or in the well-lighted dining room to talk about their ideas and enjoy the famous Harvey hospitality of that era. In fact, one day, a local widow was having lunch at La Fonda when a man in a porkpie hat approached her table and offered her a job to run an office just a couple of blocks away.
As a result of that conversation, instigated by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the initial destination of an atomic scientist in Santa Fe was 109 E. Palace Avenue, where Dorothy McKibbin, that local widow, welcomed every non-military individual associated with the Manhattan Engineer District to their new home in the middle of nowhere. McKibbin arranged for a scientist’s material goods to be delivered to Los Alamos, set up a bank account, gave each person an identification card, and informed every scientist that his new mailing address was P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sometimes, Oppenheimer would visit for martinis and a steak dinner. Occasionally, physicists would spend the night at her home on Old Pecos Road, leaving Dorothy’s son Kevin to sleep in the backyard.
Dorothy stayed on in her role for a couple of decades. Now, though, 109 E. Palace stands empty. We had been inside a few years earlier, when the place was a high-end linens shop. But when we were in Santa Fe at the end of May of this year, the property, once so crucial to the work at Los Alamos, was available for lease.
After being heavily processed and lightly acclimated by Dorothy McKibbin in Santa Fe, the scientist would get back into that limo and head to Los Alamos, another 36 miles into the Jemez Mountains. Depending upon the weather, those three dozen miles could take as long as four hours. The vistas are breathtaking. We imagine the scientists gasped most audibly as they realized they were crossing a one-lane wooden bridge and might meet a military truck rushing steeply downhill toward them. The bridge is still there, off to the side and beneath the current highway running over the Rio Grande River.
A military checkpoint greeted the scientists as they reached The Hill. Most scientists would then head to the assorted apartments, hutments, and barracks that had been hastily built for the rapid influx of personnel. Enrico Fermi lived in a nice stone building on 20th Street, Edward Teller lived in a smaller house with a shared driveway on 49th Street, and Richard Feynman took to bed in what was more like a dormitory for the men who didn’t bring wives with them. A few, including Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s leader, lived in a lovely cottage on Bathtub Row, so named because these were the only residences with bathtubs. The street remains officially named Bathtub Row. That’s where Richard Baker, the father of plutonium chemistry, lived from 1959-1995 and where the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum now stands.
The Lofty duo has spent a good deal of time traveling this past year. These trips are fleeting glimpses of the past, rapid images of someone famous running to a distant gate, or the two of us dashing to pick up a rental car. How different it must have been to be a physicist in 1944, boarding The Chief in Chicago for somewhere new. Henry Cullen’s train took 49 hours, 49 minutes to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles and 47 hours, 24 minutes for the return trip. Those travelers spent two days bumping into strangers, some of whom were preparing to change the course of history. To walk in the footsteps of atomic scientists is to try to understand that time and its relationship to our own.
To go on to Part 3 of our series “In the Footsteps,” click HERE.
In the Footsteps: Los Alamos (Part 1) June 1, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Physics, Radioactivity, Railroads, WWII
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We spent this past, very long weekend in New Mexico, doing research on our country’s nuclear history. In future posts, we’ll have more to say about the Manhattan Project and the three New Mexico museums we visited. For now, we’d like to share photos that demonstrate how we walked in the footsteps of those atomic scientists of the mid-1940s.
Once the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and World War II ended, some scientists left Los Alamos for their former United States homes or for academic posts. Others, like Richard Baker, stayed on. The Manhattan Project had achieved its goal, but the Los Alamos National Laboratory, whose address is on Bikini Atoll Road, remains an active research institution. LANL is now charged with maintaining our nuclear weapons stockpile, “ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent.” The juxtaposition between this goal and the natural beauty of Bandelier National Monument, which shares a border with the lab, left us relatively speechless. We were reminded that awe is a deeply mixed emotion, something that conjures up reverence and respect and profound wonder, but also dread.