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Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection
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Interview of John Browne by David Zierler on May 22, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/XXXX
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews John Browne, former Director of Los Alamos Laboratory. Browne recounts his working-class childhood in Pennsylvania. He discusses his early interests in science and the influence of his father, who was an electrician. He explains his decision to attend Drexel, and the factors leading his commitment to major in physics. Browne describes his graduate studies at Duke University, where he worked on techniques to create a feedback system with an atomic beam and a molecular beam. He discusses his decision to join Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and then Argonne National Laboratory. The bulk of the interview concerns Browne’s tenure at Los Alamos where he worked on the weapons program and diagnostic testing. He discusses his promotions at Los Alamos and his increasing communication with the DOE on policy relevant issues. Browne discusses his decision to accept the directorship at Los Alamos and the numerous security and accounting issues he had to deal with, which included the major security breach involving Wen Ho Lee. He discusses the creation of the NNSA and the impact of September 11th on Los Alamos and the national security world generally, and in the last portion of the interview, Browne describes his ongoing work in consulting and professional service.
OK. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 22nd, 2020. It’s my great pleasure to be here with Dr. John Browne. John, thank you so much for being with me today.
Oh, my pleasure, David.
OK, so to get started, please tell me your most recent title and institutional affiliation.
Well, I’ve been retired since 2003, but I maintained a consulting company from about 2005 until a couple years ago. And of course, it was a one-man show [laugh] but I was the head of my consulting company. Before that, my last appointment was as the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1997 to 2003.
OK, great. So now let’s take it right back to the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your family background and your early childhood.
OK, great, yeah. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia called Pottstown, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles northwest of Pottstown. I was the youngest child of five kids: two older brothers, and two older sisters.
My mother was an immigrant from Hungary when she was about 10 years old, and my father was second-generation Irish. My grandfather came from Ireland. So it was a relatively new family in that respect in terms of growing up. We were, I would say, lower middle-class type of family. My dad was an—
What was your father’s profession?
He was an electrician. He had studied—he had gone to college for a while. But during the period of the Depression, he kind of ran out of money, and had to support a family, so he became an electrician. But education was a very important part of my family. My mother, having come here without speaking the language, had to help support her family at the age of 12.
She had worked in a factory so to her, the most important thing was that her children were going to get an education. They were going to make something of their lives. So our family life really was surprisingly, for lower middle-class, very intellectual, a lot of discussions, books, and my dad loved poetry. He would read me poetry, I remember, as a child.
And so it’s was a very different life —if you just looked at the fact that he’s an electrician, and my mother was a housewife and we lived in this lower middle-class neighborhood, etc., etc. On the other hand, it was a very happy family, a very positive family looking especially toward education.
I remember my dad said to me when I was probably in ninth grade in high school, he said, “You know that I’m not going to be able to pay to send you to college, so”—and I had had pretty good grades in elementary school. But he said, “If you want to go to college, you’re probably going to have to find a way to get a scholarship to college.” He said, “I think you should, but I’m just telling you that’s where your priorities ought to be.” [laugh] Very, very interesting for a 14-year-old. [laugh]
[laugh] Now, growing up the son of an electrician, did he involve you in his work? Did you get a second-hand view of electricity and electronics?
I did, I did. He started taking me out on house calls when I was like 5 or 6 years old, pulling wire, learning how to splice wire, and how to make connections, and explain how motors work, and so on. So that’s an interesting point. My brothers and I were all very much tinkerers when we were growing up.
We made things a lot, and my dad let us use his tools. But the requirement was you always had to put the tools back. And if you didn’t put the tools back [laugh], you didn’t get to use them, which I think was a good lesson to learn. My brother who’s closest to me in age, when—I still remember this—he was about, I think, 12 years old, he built a glider, I mean, a big glider. It had—
—like a 20-foot wingspan or so. [laugh] And he eventually wound up becoming an aerospace engineer [laugh] interestingly enough—
—and a private pilot, etc. But guess who the test pilot was?
Yeah, right, exactly. [laugh]
[laugh] A younger brother, right. [laugh]
So we rolled it off a hill, and it flew about 50 yards, I guess, and I crashed into a stream. [laugh]
[laugh] I hope your mom only learned about this after the fact. [laugh]
Well, it was pretty obvious, I was covered from head to toe in mud. [laugh]
Now, John, did you go to public school as a kid?
I went to Catholic school, both grade school and high school.
Oh, wow, OK.
Yeah, I did, and my brothers—there was not a Catholic high school in the town where I grew up until I went into ninth grade, so my brothers and sisters all did go to public high school.
Now, was church on Sundays? Was that part of the schedule also?
Oh, very much so, yeah, it was very much part of that growing up, the whole community.
How was your—how would you say your science education was in high school?
I would say not very good. Mathematics was quite good. We had a nun teacher who was outstanding at teaching mathematics, and I had her for the whole four years. In those days, this is the 1950s, they didn’t really get into calculus too much like they do in high school nowadays. But she was smart enough to know that there was a subset of us who could appreciate and understand it. So in my senior year, she taught us calculus, even though it wasn’t part of the curriculum.
So going into college, I felt pretty well prepared in mathematics; not perfect, but pretty well prepared. I felt like I really didn’t like physics in high school. [laugh] It was boring. And the same thing was true with chemistry. It was OK, but it was not really very, very exciting to me. Biology was even farther away from being interesting to me.
So I actually decided to become an engineer when I applied to Drexel in Philadelphia. At that time, it was Drexel Institute of Technology. Now it’s Drexel University. It’s has co-op program. They offered me a Board of Trustees scholarship for the first year, full tuition, and then half tuition for two more years. So that was obviously very attractive to me. I mean, I did apply to other colleges, but that one seemed right to me. And they had a good engineering program, and so on. My interview for the scholarship was interesting because I had injured my right hand playing baseball – I was spiked by a runner sliding into second base- so I couldn’t shake hands I think that actually helped me get the scholarship because it balanced out my scholastic achievements.
Were the other schools that you applied to also local, or did you apply farther away from your childhood home?
No, they were all in the Philadelphia area, yeah, they were Villanova, Saint Joe’s, those type of schools. Drexel—I had a brother that had graduated from Drexel in electrical engineering, my oldest brother, and he had a really good experience on his co-op program. So I thought that would be really good for me.
While I didn’t have to pay tuition in the first couple of years, I could use the money I made as a co-op to kind of build a nest egg to finish college. So I started out and, it was fine the first year. I did really well in—scholastically in my first year—I [laugh] started in civil engineering, interestingly enough.
What were you thinking, like bridge-building, that kind of stuff?
Yeah, buildings, large structures and so on. So my first co-op job came about in the summer right after my freshman year, and I was assigned to build bridges and a road that was about 15 miles long and so on. And I have this story. You’ll love this story.
I was working for this guy, and he said, “John, we’re building this really complicated bridge. It’s got a weird structure.” And he said, “We have to figure out how much concrete we’re going to need.” So of course I sat down and did what a physicist would do, as you know.
I laid out [laugh] the equations of the bridge, and I integrated it all, and came up with the number of cubic yards of concrete we’d have to have. And so I wrote it up very nice, stapled together. I handed it in to him. He said, “What the hell is this? What are all these squiggly lines?” [laugh]
[laugh] So I explained it to him, and he looked at me, and he went over to his shelf. I’ll never forget it. He grabbed this engineering handbook, and he opened it up, and he said, “Use that formula.” And I said, “Well, how do you know it’s right?” [laugh]
And he said, “I don’t think you should be an engineer, kid.” [laugh]
[laugh] You’re asking too many questions. [laugh]
[laugh] Exactly. So I went back to college to Drexel in the fall, and I went over to talk to the head of the physics department who was an older gentleman who wrote a really good elementary physics book. His name was Russell Wehr - Wehr and Richards. It was a very famous book in the ‘60s.
Anyway, Dr. Wehr said to me, “…look, if you’re really interested in physics, that’s great, and you should consider it, and we’d love to have you. But,” he said, “I don’t think you should do it unless you want to go all the way through to get a PhD. The bachelors in physics is nice, but it’s really not worth very much to you for your career.”
Now, was that the first time it really occurred to you about think—pursuing a graduate degree?
It did, exactly. I had not thought about that. And, I went away and thought to myself, oh, my goodness. First of all, Drexel as a co-op school is five years, so I would be 23 when I get out. And I figured maybe another five years in graduate school, I’d be 28. And of course, when you’re 20 years old, that’s like forever, right?
Right, right. [laugh]
But I thought about it for a long time, and then I said, well, it’s my career, and I’m going to be doing this for many, many years, so—and I’ve always had this feeling, no matter what you do, you better love what you do. And I’ve always told my kids the same thing. I don’t really care what you choose to do- to major in in college, or what you want to do in life, but you better love it. You really ought to care deeply about what you do.
So I did, I went back and I switched to physics, and that was an eye-opener for me. It was—I did very well in physics in my classes. And my grades actually went and got higher as I went into physics because I think I loved it, and I think I was really challenged by physics- to understand it wasn’t just another course; it was something really interesting to me.
Now, as you were developing your interests in physics, were you naturally gravitating more toward the applied physics, experimental, theoretical? What were the areas you were most comfortable in?
Yeah, I was most comfortable in experimental physics, although, I mean, I got a taste of theoretical physics from some of the courses that I took, and I certainly enjoyed those. But, again, going back to my younger childhood as a hands-on type of kid, I felt more at home in the laboratory, and coming up with ideas of, how do you study this problem, and what do you do to get an answer to it? Not just what’s the theoretical explanation, but how do you prove it with an experiment? So, yeah, I really did gravitate toward that area.
Did you have any summer internships that were related to physics?
Well, as a co-op student, they placed me in a unique position—it was across the river from Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey. It’s New York Shipbuilding Corporation where they were building nuclear submarines.
And so I wound up for four years building nuclear attack submarines, and putting the reactors together, and basically using my physics background to help them as we not only installed them but tested them, and tried to understand changes that had to be made in the field, so to speak. That was a good experience for me. I had a really good boss. Everybody was very young in the field. I think everyone was under 30 years old when I started.
It is just engineering—at first blush, you would say, well, it’s reactor engineering. What did it have to do with physics? At that period, reactor engineering was really a new field. There weren’t a lot of people who majored in reactor engineering or nuclear engineering. So a physics background was valuable—a lot of the people I worked with had physics and chemistry backgrounds. They were graduates of classic scientific and engineering fields from good schools but it was still a pioneering type of feeling because not everybody understood exactly how the reactor was going to perform.
Yeah. Now I’m curious, looking ahead, I mean, given where your career went, when was the first time you started thinking about national laboratories? Was that on your radar at all as an undergraduate? Were you even aware of places like Livermore and Los Alamos?
No, not at all, not at all. No, I was more aware of the big companies that might be doing physics, the IBMs, the Bell Labs, etc., General Electric, Westinghouse, somebody like that. I didn’t really know much about the national laboratories. I’d heard about them, but I really didn’t know much about them.
Right. So that advice you got from the professor about going all the way with a graduate degree, the advice was not given in the context of because you should end up being a physics professor? What he was saying was, “Whatever you do, you’ll do it better with a PhD.” Is that the idea?
That’s correct. That’s exactly correct, yeah. And I knew that it was a possibility that one of the options would be to be a professor at a university. But I also knew there were opportunities for physicists in lots of fields, especially at that period in the mid- to late ‘60s – it was a pretty exciting time for physics. I saw a lot of growth in new fields, for example, lasers were coming in, particle accelerators, a whole lot of excitement, fusion with plasma physics. There were a lot of exciting things going on.
yeah, not to mention the Space Race, the Cold War—
The Space Race, yeah. Several of my fellow students at Drexel actually worked at some of the NASA facilities. Actually I wished I had too because [laugh] they had exciting, really exciting appointments, working on things nobody had worked on [laugh] before.
Now did Drexel have a senior thesis?
No, they did not. They did not. But, when I was a junior, I think, we formed a student section of the APS. They had not had one before that.
Oh, really? Oh, I didn’t know that.
Yeah, I was surprised too. But there were a group of us that joined the APS in like 1964 or something like that, and we formed a student section. And we decided to do our own senior project jointly, and we picked some topic in nuclear physics- it was Compton scattering..
But anyway, it was a good experience. About four or five of us who did the experiment together, and wrote it up, and gave it to our professors. I think that might’ve stimulated them to think about a senior thesis in future years because we said, “…..It’s kind of what people do [laugh] at that stage in their career.”
So as you were coming closer to graduating, and you were thinking about graduate programs, what were some of the considerations that were on your mind at the time in terms of the kind of physics you wanted to do, the kind of people you wanted to work with, where you wanted to live? What were those options available to you?
Right, yeah, I really didn’t care so much about where I lived. I was open to going wherever I wanted to. I was really interested in nuclear physics at the time. It was a hot, exciting field in the mid-’60s.
So I applied to I think it was three—four schools. I applied to Berkeley, UC Berkeley. I applied to the University of Maryland, and Stanford. And the reason I applied to Stanford was not so much for nuclear physics but, if you remember, they have an applied physics program at Stanford, and that attracted me, so I applied there. And then Duke; Duke was the other one. And Berkeley—[laugh] Berkeley lost my application. [laugh]
[laugh] I still couldn’t believe that. And they said, “Sorry. Well, you can apply again next year.” [laugh]
Oh, well, thank you very much, right.
[laugh] That’s what I said. “Oh, that was very nice of you. Thank you.”
I got into the other schools. They offered me assistantships, teaching assistantships, etc. Duke offered me a NASA fellowship, and I said, “Well, it’s pretty attractive.” [laugh]
Now, what does a NASA fellowship mean?
It was full tuition for the first year, and tuition for two more years, I think, like half or two-thirds, something like that. It tapered off. The tuition stipend tapered off. But there were no requirements to work for NASA. It was just that NASA at that time was trying to support graduate education, and there was no requirement on what type of physics I did or whatever I was interested in. It was a pretty nice fellowship in that regard.
Now, was the draft an issue for you in terms of decisions you were making?
No, it turned out that coming from the town that I grew up in, this small town, my draft board was willing to classify me because I was going to graduate school—I can’t—what’s the classification? It was—they had something for national security or something like that. In my town, very few people went to college. I think of my high school graduating class maybe only 10% went to college.
So the draft board had plenty of people they could send off to Vietnam. So I was lucky and fortunate in that regard. I had a lot of friends who did have to go to Vietnam, but I basically sailed through that period without having to dodge the draft or do anything, frankly.
Yeah. So I assume that when you chose Duke, right, that the fact that they were competitive with places like Stanford, the physics department there probably saw themselves very much on the rise in terms of building the program, right?
That’s exactly right. That was the other thing that attracted me. Maryland was a very big program. They had like 125 graduate students in physics coming in a class. Duke only had 25 or 30, and that appealed to me, a smaller class where I could get to know everybody.
I wouldn’t feel like I was lost in a lecture room, with 100 other incoming students. It appealed more to me. And I was right. I think it did turn out to be a better experience. And Duke was really trying very hard at that time to recruit new faculty and new capabilities and so on.
Were there professors that you knew you specifically wanted to work with before you got to Duke, or you only developed those relationships after you got to campus?
No, I only developed them after I got to campus. I really wanted to kind of get to know all the faculty as best I could through classes or working in their labs, etc. They were very flexible at Duke about trying to figure out who you wanted to work for. They had no strong feelings pushing you one direction or other.
And in terms—
And they had a broad cross section of physics; not just nuclear physics. They had a good—very good low temperature physics group. And they had an embryonic laser interactions type of group; not plasma physics so much but more laser interactions with atoms and so on.
Now, in terms of the curriculum, what was the rough breakdown between coursework and lab work at Duke?
The first two years was pretty solid coursework. And,I had some options where I could work in the labs kind of as an intern almost . In fact, they even had a name for it but I can’t remember what it was.
But we would work, for example, on an accelerator, and help some senior graduate student with his thesis work - whether it was filling vacuum traps with liquid nitrogen [laugh] or taking data, working on the computer, whatever, that kind of thing. So it was a learning experience. They really wouldn’t let you, I would say, for the first two years really start out on your own and do your own research, right. It was more that you’re going to work under somebody for a couple of years to get the feeling for what it’s like here.
Now, for the courses in terms of developing your own expertise and dissertation, what were the most important courses and professors for you?
Yeah, I would say quantum mechanics, and it was Professor Biedenharn, who was pretty well-known, Lawrence Biedenharn. He did a lot of theory in quantum mechanics. He was a really, really tough professor [laugh] because he kept pushing us into areas where it was—for me, it was really new.
I mean, I had taken quantum mechanics as an undergraduate. But he was really exposing us to the tools of quantum mechanics and the various expressions of how you can do something with different techniques in quantum mechanics, different expressions, and so on. He was challenging. Some students dropped out of his class because they found it too hard. I stuck with it, and fought my way through it, and found my way out [laugh]—
—it really paid off, because I really understood some things that became useful interpreting my data as I did my thesis.
And so how did you go about developing your dissertation topic?
Well, there was an interesting topic that one of the students who was a couple of years ahead of me was working on. Are you familiar with isobaric analog states where there—they’re the states where you flip a neutron and a proton, and they’re the same state but in different nuclei, shifted by a Coulomb energy difference. Well, those were first observed in the early ‘60s by, it turns out, a person I wound up working for at Livermore [laugh], John Anderson.
Oh, wow. [laugh]
[laugh] It’s really ironic. I mean, I would never have guessed that.
You only made that connection afterwards though?
Yeah, exactly. [laugh] But, anyway, what they were doing at Duke which was different was that they used a three-megavolt Van de Graaff to develop a technique to improve the resolution of the proton beam. The typical resolution of a proton beam on a Van de Graaff is about a kilovolt to a kilovolt and a half out of, say, three or four or five MeV.
Well, at Duke they came up with a technique to basically use a feedback system with an atomic beam and a molecular beam. And the molecular beam was sent through an electrostatic analyzer so that at the other end when it came out of the electrostatic analyzer, there were slits that registered a signal as the beam changed in energy- it wandered across the slits. That became a feedback to the accelerator that was a correction to the voltage. And so you could actually significantly reduce the proton resolution—we demonstrated we could go from a kilovolt and a half to 100 electron volts, which is a big deal, right, [??].
So when we did that, we saw that an isobaric analog state was split with fine resolution, it split up into fine structure. Georges Temmer, a Professor at Rutgers, who was also working on analog states came to see us, and said, “That’s wrong. You guys made a mistake. You can’t be right,” But we found it in many analog states in Argon, Neon.
What was his basis for asserting so certainly that this was wrong?
Because he couldn’t see it. [laugh] His resolution wasn’t good enough.
Georges—I liked Georges Temmer. He was a very nice man. But he did have a big ego [laugh] and he did not like missing something. [laugh] So eventually he had to admit that we were correct, that these analog states did have a fine structure, and it was due to a quantum mechanical effect, the mixing of isospin between two nuclei.
One would have one isotope—one isospin; the other would have a different one. And as they mixed, they would break the state apart into this fine structure. There was a professor at that time at Florida State, Don Robson, a pretty well-known theorist. He explained our data. We knew—we did all of the calculations that we could, but he came in with a theory. He came up to see us and said “This is great.”
He explained exactly the shape of the fine structure, and it was predicted perfectly. And it turned out to be a really exciting time in nuclear physics because no one else could do it. Duke was the only one that had this high-resolution beam, and so we milked that [laugh] very well. I was the second thesis to work in this area. The first one—I don’t know if you know Jay Keyworth or not—
—but he was the—well, he was the thesis ahead of me. So Jay and I worked together on his thesis, and then he did it with gaseous targets because you can make gaseous targets thin, and he built a helium refrigerator to do this. So it was an exciting time to learn about low temperature physics, applying it to nuclear physics. Jay had me build a thermistor sensor system to monitor the temperature of his gas sample.
And, John, I’m curious, how much did you rely on your amateur skills as a tinkerer to conduct your dissertation research? Was that really part of the mix?
Yeah, it really was, quite a bit. Yes, as a matter of fact, I remember when it got to my thesis, we had run out of gaseous targets to examine. And so you had to build a thin solid-state target, but it’s really, really tricky because it has to be a few micrograms per square centimeter, and they don’t stand up very well to rough handling or vacuums and so on. So I developed a technique sort of by tinkering.
I wound up finding that you could make carbon films, and float them off onto a target holder, and they would be very lightweight. That was the backing for the material I wanted to study. And then I evaporated my material using just a sort of standard vacuum evaporation technique. But I was able to get a few micrograms per square centimeter that way. And then I had to build a new target chamber that would preserve these targets. They couldn’t get oxidized, and they also couldn’t break when you inserted them in and pumped the target chamber out.
So I designed that chamber, and took it into our machine shop. And I still [laugh] remember the head of our machine shop looked at my drawings, and he said, “Wow.” He said, “I’ve never had a physicist come in here with complete engineering drawings.” [laugh]
But that came from this background. So, I mean, I knew how to draft, and I knew how to make the various types of engineering structures to make it work. And it worked very well, and it turned out to be—they used that for many years at Duke, so it did have a big effect on me.
How was your experience at the defense?
At the what?
At the defense, at the dissertation defense?
Oh, yeah, that was actually a lot of fun. I had, let’s see, I think four or five people on my thesis dissertation defense. They had very good questions about my experiment. But none of them had a serious objection to anything—actually, they all found it quite interesting, I remember. They asked more questions that appeared to be about learning than it was about critiquing. [laugh]
So you were clearly the expert in the room for this?
I felt like it, I really did, yeah, very much.
John, before we move on to the next phase, I want to ask you on the personal and social side, first, are you a bachelor during these years? Are you married yet?
No, I was a bachelor during those years, yes.
And I’m curious, at Duke in the late 1960s, what was the scene like on campus? I mean, had anti-war protests and civil rights movements, had that reached the Duke campus or not so much compared to other places?
Yeah, actually it did reach the Duke campus, and it started first with the assassination of Martin Luther King. I remember that there was a Malcolm X University in Durham, North Carolina at that time. And there were major riots in Durham. They did call out the National Guard, and blocked people from coming into town and onto campus.
As a matter of fact, I was out visiting somebody back in Pennsylvania, and I drove back, and I had a little MGB at the time. And I drove back into Durham, and tried to go back to the physics department, there were all these National Guard guys. This guy sticks a rifle in my [laugh] window and said, “Where are you going?” [laugh] I said, “I’m just a poor little old physicist going to my lab.” [laugh]
[laugh] It was a pretty scary time though actually. They burnt down a lot of the city, and it was unfortunate but I understood the sentiment. It was really a pretty sad time. And so even though Duke was,kind of viewed as an elitist, wealthy campus, I would say the rest of the world was filtering into Duke at that period right after that.
And the anti-war movement definitely did come in during that period. It came in really hard right after I got my PhD, which was in ’69. And I stayed on for a year to teach at Duke, and the main reason for that was there weren’t very many jobs in physics in ‘69, ‘70, and ‘71. There was a real dip in employment. And so the Duke physics faculty said if I wanted to stay as an instructor in physics, I could continue while doing some research, and they would pay me some minuscule salary [laugh] to me. So I did that, and that was quite interesting but in—
Was that your first taste of real undergraduate teaching, or had you—
—had you led—you did not lead sections as a graduate student so much?
No. No, I didn’t. It really was my first experience, and I really enjoyed it. And I think my students enjoyed dealing with me. I used to hold these teaching sessions the night before a big exam where I would just do any problem in the book. I’d say, “You pick the problem, I’ll do it.” And that was kind of a challenge [laugh] but they liked that because then they could see how to attack a problem—and I used to tell them, I said, “I’m going to probably do 100 problems tonight.” I said, “One of the problems I do is going to be on the exam tomorrow.”
So the room was packed. [laugh] And then of course I never gave them exactly the problem, but I gave one analogous to it with different numbers and so on so that nobody could really cheat. But I got them to look at 100 problems. [laugh]
Now in terms of thinking about jobs when they would become available, looking back, was your sense that the kind of dissertation that you did, and the way you did it, was that something that was sort of a very natural fit for a national laboratory environment, would you say?
Part of it, part of it was; I would say the experimental side of it very much so. The thesis overall would’ve actually lent itself to an academic appointment, I think, because it was a, broad topic, it was of high interest, and clearly could lead to other things in nuclear physics. And it did for other people; not so much for me.
But the experimental work was pretty challenging. And I think it helped me particularly at Livermore, They looked at what I had done, but they wanted me to do something totally different. But they saw that I could do experimental work.
So how did the opportunity at Livermore come about?
That’s really interesting. They had just built a new electron linac at Livermore, a 100 MeV electron linac. It was based on the SLAC design, which so it was very easy for Livermore to pick up the technology, and put it in.
Now was the idea that Livermore was positioning itself to be a competitor to SLAC? Was that your sense?
No. No, they had different interests. One was to make neutrons with gamma rays, gamma-n reactions, so it was a pulse neutron source for applied studies, both weapons and other reactor type of things. But they also had an idea which they had developed there, although at a earlier, smaller electron linac, which was to make positrons, accelerate the positrons, and then annihilate them in flight, so you would have monoenergetic photons—a tunable monoenergetic photon beam.
So they would do photo-nuclear experiments which were pretty impressive because,you didn’t have a background to subtract from like you do using a Bremsstrahlung beam to do the same kind of work. So it was a pretty cool group of people there. One of the people I worked with was named Charlie Bowman. Charlie had gone to Duke Graduate School with my thesis advisor back in the late ‘50s. And my advisor, Edward Bilpuch, was already on the faculty, but he was a pretty young guy.
But he and Charlie were friends, and so Charlie called him up and said, “Do you have any good students? We’re looking to hire somebody.” And Bilpuch said, “Well, I just happen to have this guy, John.” [laugh] So we wound up meeting at an APS meeting in Washington, D.C., in the old annual meetings they had at the two hotels there. And we talked about it.
And so Charlie said, “OK, we’re going to invite you out for an interview.” And that’s—I had had a couple of other ticklers, one from Argonne National Lab with John Schiffer. John Schiffer liked my work quite a bit. I did go to Argonne and interviewed there.
And Lowell Bollinger liked my work. He was a head of the physics department at Argonne at the time. And, let’s see, there were two other people- one was Hal Jackson. And so they said, “We would like you to come and be a postdoc at Argonne, and you’ll work for all four of us.” [laugh] And I said, “Wow.” [laugh]
“I’m not going to have an hour of time for myself.” [laugh] But the four people were just fantastic—Argonne was outstanding. I mean it still is. But I was really grateful. They were wonderful people to me. But I chose to go instead to Livermore because I thought it was—first of all, it wasn’t a postdoc position, although the postdoc position didn’t bother me.
It was a real job. It was a staff job.
It was a real job, and I could see a career there. Whereas Argonne, I had two years, and I would work my tail off, which was fine, but then I’d have to go back into—into the mill to find another job, and so on. But, anyway, I kept all those friends at Argonne, so I never felt bad about that.
There’s an interesting story about how I got hired at Livermore. I went out, and it’s a typical interview job or interview process. I gave a talk on analog states of course. And who’s in the audience but John Anderson, the fellow who discovered analog states. [laugh] And so I knew John by reputation. I’d never met him before.
But after my talk, he came up and he said, “Oh, your data is so beautiful. I love this.” He was not a manager at the time. He was strictly a scientist—staff scientist. And he said, “I’ll help you if you come to the laboratory.” He said, “I think we would have fun working together.”
So I thought that was interesting. But at the end of my talk, the head of the division that I was going to work in, which was called E Division—Experimental Division, which was part of the Physics department at Livermore— said to me, “We’re in the midst of a reduction in force at Livermore.” You know what, RIF is—
“We’ve just let go 300 scientists or something like this, and they all worked in the safeguards program”—they used to have a safeguards program when atmospheric testing went away and they went to underground testing. This safeguards program flew sensors on airplanes and various things to look for evidence of cheating on the treaty, the Limited Test Ban Treaty in the ‘60s. Well, all of that program, the safeguards program went away in 1969 and ‘70, and so these people were out of work. So he said, “The only way you can get a job is you have to pass an interview with Dr. Teller.” And I went, “Oh.” [laugh]
Well, Teller was the associate director for physics at the time. So they ushered me up to Teller’s office, and I walked in, and he was sitting at his desk with his head down, and he looked up with his bushy eyebrows, and he said, “Look, I’m very busy. Tell me what you’ve done in your career that’s worth my knowing. Go to the blackboard. You have 15 minutes.” [laugh]
So I went there [laugh] and I started writing as fast as I could about my thesis and so on. And he was really interested, and he asked really good technical questions about isospin and mixing. And he knew—I mean, he hadn’t worked in the field [laugh] but, I mean, he knew more than 90% of the people I worked with, I felt, because his questions were very good and probing. Anyway, at the end of 15 minutes, he bangs the table to stop. And I said, “Oh, it’s over for me. I’m dead.”
He said, “Look, this is very interesting.” He said, “I want you to keep going because I’m going to use this today in my class at Berkeley.” [laugh]
[laugh] Wow. So I continued for maybe another 15 or 20 minutes. And at the end, he stopped and he said, “So what do you think about the Vietnam War?” [laugh] Well, this is literally true. The week before was when Nixon invaded Cambodia, and I was teaching, as I said. And a lot of my students wanted to march on Washington, and they wanted me to shut down classes so they could march on Washington.
And I said, “I’m not going to do that because not everybody in the class feels the way that you do. I’m going to keep my class open. But if you go to Washington, here’s the deal. If you come back for the final exam, and pass the final exam, you pass. That’s my deal with you. You don’t have to stay in class for another month.”
“But come back, take the final exam, you pass if you pass the final.” And most said, “OK, that’s a good deal.” So I told Teller this story, and I said, “But some of them,” I said, “Dr. Teller, called me a fascist pig.” [laugh] And he said, “You too?” [laugh]
[laugh] You’re in good company.
That’s right, that’s right. So, anyway, he said to me, he asked me this question, and he said, “You know,” he said, “Livermore is an applied physics laboratory. We do nuclear weapons work and,” he said, “there will come a day when….”
He said, “you’re being hired to go into the physics department to do the best physics you can do, and publish it in the open literature.” But he said, “I guarantee there will be a day when I call you and ask you to come and work on a nuclear weapons problem. What do you tell me?” And, well, that’s a tough question, right, I mean.
So I kind of hemmed and hawed, and he said, “No, no, no. John, this is a very easy question. Either—if you say, ‘I won’t work’,” he said, “go work in academia.” He said, “I wish you well. I’m not opposed to you doing that. It’s just Livermore’s job, its mission is to work with nuclear weapons.”
And I said, “Well, look, I used to work with nuclear reactors and submarines and so on, and I had a security clearance then.” I said, “I could work with nuclear weapons.” And he said—he looked at me for a long time, and stared at me in the eyes, and then he said, “OK, you have a job.” [laugh]
[laugh] Yeah, I know, that was special—
[laugh] And six months after I started at Livermore, I picked up the phone, and he said, “John, this is Edward. Come to my office.” [laugh] And, sure enough, he had a problem he was working, and he said, “I understand you know something about this problem.” And I happened to know something about it. And he said, “Very good. Go to the blackboard.” [laugh]
He did that many times while I was at Livermore. And actually I felt that was a good thing for a person of his stature to do with the younger scientists. He engaged them in a way that was not—it was not hierarchical. If you were a staff scientist, you were part of the team—and I think this dates back to Oppenheimer really.
If you were a staff scientist, you’re a staff scientist. You come in, and if you can solve the problem, you’re part of the group. It doesn’t matter what your title is, right. And I think that’s actually a good philosophy for national laboratories. DOE has moved away from that big-time. They now have ranked scientists 1 through 99 or something like that.
I always felt when I went to Livermore that I was welcome in the program meetings. Here I was a few months into working there, and I could go to a Monday morning meeting where the director of the lab went to hear about the latest research in the laboratory. And I was welcome to come sit in that auditorium and listen too. I was—to me, a wonderful situation. You could learn, , and you didn’t have to wait X years to become part of the system.
Yeah. So in terms of the kinds of projects that you worked on, was it sort of a one-project-at-a-time system, or on any given day you would be pulled between several projects?
Usually I didn’t have any more than three going at any given time. And it got a little bit more the longer I was there. But it wasn’t—it was never, an hour on this, and an hour on that. I usually was able to focus on something for days on end before I’d switch back to something else I was working on.
But usually I had a project that was of my own choosing. I had a project that the laboratory really was interested in me accomplishing. And then the third one was usually something I was trying to think about something new, a new idea that I wanted to explore in physics, which took a lot longer. But you sometimes have to go think about it, and you have to read literature, you have to go dabble with a new detector system, that type of thing.
So what were some of your most significant projects at Livermore?
There were a few that really stood out. One that I got involved deeply in is neutron-induced fission, the process, how does it actually work? At that time, it was becoming apparent that the fission barrier was actually a so-called double-humped barrier. It was not a single barrier liquid drop model anymore, which is what the original Bohr-Wheeler theory of fission was. Bohr-Wheeler was a liquid drop, and it just split apart.
But what was actually found is that it is a multidimensional space. So the fission barrier actually had another well or multiple wells. It has the ground state, and then it has another well where states could get trapped, which fission with half-lives (fission isomers), because they can penetrate the barrier because it isn’t as thick, and the lowest level is at higher excitation energy than the equilibrium ground state. And so I worked on isomeric fission.
I also worked on subthreshold fission in which we found resonances that lined up with states in the second well of the fission process. The states coupled between the two wells and resulted in fission resonances below the traditional fission threshold. So that was an exciting time. And that led me to do some experiments very early on at LAMPF. LAMPF had just come online in 1972. And I proposed an experiment at LAMPF, one of the first ones on muon-induced fission beam line, because you could make a copious amount of muons there.
And if you remember, a muon is like a heavy electron. And so if you put a muon around like a uranium nucleus, its orbit is very close to the nucleus, and you can get radiationless transitions of ~ 6 MeV in the nucleus, and actually excite the nucleus to fission by the muon being so close to the nucleus. It just gives a radiationless transition to energies above the fission threshold.
So I did that, and I wound up getting the opportunity to work with John Huizenga at University of Rochester, who had proposed a similar thing. So John called me up. I was this young scientist. [laugh] He said, “Why don’t we merge forces?” He said, “You can do some things I can’t do. I can do some things you can’t do. We’ll just work together.”
And I said, “Yeah, sure, it sounds great to me.” [laugh] And we wound up becoming good friends out of that. And you never realize this in physics, the opportunities you get through connections like that, and it’s really unique and special.
Right, and it really sounds like at Livermore there was a real culture of basic science research, that you were free to pursue things that you found interesting and important yourself.
Pretty much so. It started to change toward the end of my tenure there. And actually one of the experiments I did, separate from fission, was a neutron capture experiment. I had developed all these new gamma-ray detectors, which were made out of deuterated benzene, so they were liquid simulators. But by putting deuterium in instead of hydrogen, the neutrons that scattered into your detector did not create a background. Because neutrons when they hit hydrogen slow down and can capture on a hydrogen and give a background signal.
Whereas with deuterium, whose cross-section is much lower and so on and so on, you can get a much more sensitive detector. So I was able to measure small samples of materials that other people were unwilling to try. Everybody needed a large sample. I could measure grams of elements. People were doing kilograms, and I was doing grams.
So I got this phone call one day from Willie Fowler at CalTech, and he said, “I hear you can measure small quantities [laugh] of materials to measure neutron capture reactions.” And I said, “Well, yeah, it’s hard but we can do it.” And he said, “Well, I’ve got an idea.” He said, “You know of my uranium-thorium cosmological clock, right?” And I said, “Yes, I do, Professor Fowler.” He said, “Well, there’s this other clock called the osmium-rhenium clock.” And he said, “We don’t have the nuclear data to use the clock.”
And so he said, “Could you measure the neutron capture cross-sections of osmium-186 and 187?” And so I said, “Well, I can try,” and said, “I don’t know how much osmium, especially of these isotopes is around.” So, anyway, I called Oak Ridge, where the isotopes are made, as you know. And they said, “We have micrograms [laugh] not grams. We have a microgram.” And so I looked around, and I thought, oh, my goodness, this isn’t going to work. So I came across an ad in Physics Today from a company- it was a Soviet holding company—that said they were selling isotopes.
So I called them up and said, “Can you sell me some osmium-186 and 187?” And they said, “We think so, so we’ll get back to you.” The very next day, I got a call from the AEC, which at the time was the predecessor of ERDA and DOE, and the head of the nuclear physics program at that time was George Rogosa. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that name, George Rogosa.
No, I haven’t.
Well, George was the office head for the nuclear physics program for the AEC similar to that in today’s Office of Science. And George called and said, “Why are you trying to buy isotopes from the Soviet Union?” [laugh] And I thought to myself, how does he know that?
—that I was trying to buy isotopes from the USSR? [laugh] So I explained to George why I was doing this. And I said, “Well, Oak Ridge said they didn’t have any isotopes.” And he said, “I’ll call you back.” He called me back the next day, and he said, “Don’t buy any isotopes from Soviet Union. Oak Ridge is making you isotopes.”
Well, they ran their calutrons for a year making osmium-186 and 187, gram quantities of high purity for me. [laugh] And where are you going to ever get that done except you have Willie Fowler on your side, and you have a national lab on your side. [laugh] So, anyway, I did the measurements and—
And, John, what was the concern with the Soviet Union…were there security concerns? Why did they want to head this arrangement off?
They were just bad relationships and bad vibes at the time between us and the Soviets. And having a weapons lab didn’t look very good either, yeah. They were just concerned it didn’t look good.
But it turned out fine at the end—and the data turned out very beautiful. We got a slightly different result for the age of the universe than the uranium-thorium clock, so Fowler said we had to be wrong. But it turned out that other people repeated our experiments, and also calculated the age of the universe—we had enough error bars that all Os data both overlapped well enough that we weren’t really out of kilter with what people were thinking at the time.
I think it was we had 14 plus or minus 2 billion years for the age of the universe or somewhere around that for that first experiment. But here’s the thing I wanted to tell you that that was also one of the things I was very proud about doing that experiment. I got it published in Nature magazine, and you know how hard it is to get something published in Nature. [laugh]
But I got a phone call from the weapons program at Livermore when they saw publicity about us doing this experiment on the age of the universe, and they wanted to know who paid for it. And I said, “Well, the weapons program [laugh] paid for it.” And they said, “That was inappropriate. You should never have worked on that.”
And I said, “Look, there’s a reason I did it.” I said, “First of all, it was possible to do it. But second of all, those detectors are the detectors I’m using for an experiment the weapons program needs done. That’s why I developed them.” “Well, that’s not a good enough answer. You should never have worked on this basic research,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Well, about a—maybe it was a month later, Livermore held their first Director’s Distinguished Lecture. They made a series out of this that I think still goes on today. Guess who the first lecturer was? Willie Fowler.
Oh, wow. [laugh]
[laugh] So Willie does this talk about all of this astrophysics stuff, and he puts up our data. [laugh] And he said, “And John Browne and Barry Berman did this beautiful experiment here at Livermore. [laugh] Their work on the rhenium-osmium clock is excellent. So it was a really nice support statement from Fowler.
The next day, I got a call from the weapons program, and they said, “Well, it’s OK that you did that experiment.” [laugh] But that day was the first time I questioned Livermore’s commitment to basic research because I’d never run into that before. They had always been very open-minded that if you helped them meet their mission, what you did on the side to advance science was OK. As a matter of fact, Teller told me personally in that interview that’s what he wanted me to do. He said, “That’s what tells the rest of the world we’re good is publishing in the open literature, not classified documents.”
Right, and what do you think he was getting at more broadly with that? I mean, why the emphasis on the public dissemination?
He told me he wanted the Soviets to know that our weapons labs were first-rate and had first-rate people that published in the scientific literature. He said, “…because that’s then an indication of the quality of the weapons work we’re doing.” Well, the way he put it to me was that nuclear deterrence is about people as much as it is about weapons—a very interesting point of view that I strongly believe is true today.
Now obviously he needs partners to make this sort of broader initiative, right? So who are some of the people that were on board with Fowler in terms of disseminating this information in this way?
You mean inside the laboratory or outside?
No, I mean politically, I mean in Washington, right?
In Washington? Yeah, certainly the people within the AEC who looked at our classification guidelines, they were certainly supportive of us doing research that was open. And I never felt from the AEC side that we had many restrictions on research we did unless it was definitely touching on a weapons issue. You know what I mean?
So, for example, I could measure the fission cross-section of plutonium-239, and they didn’t care, and they said, “That’s an open topic.” Now, if I had worked on something that dealt with how plutonium worked in a bomb, they would’ve said, “No way, you’re not—we’re not getting anywhere near that subject,” right. The classification guidelines were quite explicit so I never had any problems working within them.
So there were people generally within the government who were supportive of basic research. And certainly if you go back to the original Vannevar Bush papers, there’s a lot in those that makes it clear that national security is about the strength of our scientific base as well as our focused or directed research base. So I never felt like there was much negative feedback for any of the basic research I worked on.
When 1979 came around, how did you know it was time to move on? What was that process like?
Oh, yeah, that was really interesting. Two things had happened. One, I got a phone call from Jay Keyworth, who was now the head of the Physics division at Los Alamos. And I picked up the phone. He said, “How you doing?” I said, “Great.” He said, “How’d you like to come to Los Alamos and run Group P-3?”
Well, if you know Los Alamos, at that time it had this alphabet soup of groups: P-this, T-that, X-this. That sort of goes back to the Manhattan Project. P-3 had a history that went back to 1943. It actually was founded in that time period, and had a lot of great history about it. So I knew about the group, and I knew a lot of people in the group. I was a colleague of many of these people. We knew each other quite well.
And I said, “Well, I’m pretty happy at Livermore. [laugh] I’m not sure I really want to pick up things.” By this time, I was married, and had one child and another on the way. And so I’m thinking do I really want to pick up my family, and move to New Mexico?
California’s a pretty nice place to live. I like to ski. I like to play tennis. I like to bike ride. Los Alamos is a little bit different where it is. And then something happened that affected my decision. The Director of Livermore was Roger Batzel at that time. Roger had asked me to serve on a human resources committee about a year earlier, and asked me if I would do a study with a group of people about whether Livermore should start a postdoc program. And so we did.
We went out and talked to a lot of people in industry and all the other national labs: Argonne, Los Alamos, Brookhaven, etc. And we came back and wrote a report and said, “Yes, we think this would be very healthy for Livermore to have a postdoc program.” So he—Batzel said, “Come to my senior management group meeting on Monday, and present your findings.” So I did.
I wasn’t halfway into my briefing when several of the associate directors attacked me, saying, “This is the stupidest thing we ever heard. Why does Livermore need a postdoc program? We can go out and buy anybody we want.”
And I argued with them and said, “First, we can’t do that. That’s not why people come to Livermore. I didn’t come for the money. I came for the science and for the mission and what I could do here.” And they said, “Oh, you’re wrong. We can do anything we want,” blah, blah, blah.
And I was really disappointed in Batzel because Batzel had told me he wanted a postdoc program, and he caved at that time to his associate directors. And that really set this negative—second negative vibe to me about Livermore. The one earlier about the research on osmium-rhenium, and then “we can’t do a postdoc program because we can buy people”. So when I went back, I told Keyworth, “I’ll fly down and talk to you.” And I did, and, frankly, it was really exciting to be there.
Now, were you generally aware of what was going on at Los Alamos during your time at Livermore? Were you keeping up with what they were doing, or this was you were learning—
No, I was very, very much attuned to what they did in the Physics division and so on. I knew a lot of the people there. So it wasn’t like I was going into an unknown situation at all.
Right, and generally, was this an attractive option for you, would you say?
Yeah, definitely. Yeah, it definitely was. And Jay Keyworth asked me to do something. He said, “If you come,” he said, “I will also want you to start a new research program in the group.” And I said, “OK, in what?” And he said, “In weak interaction physics.”
Well, I didn’t know a lot about weak interaction physics. I knew a little bit. But he said, “You can hire people, and I want you to start a program in this.” Well, that was attractive to me, the more I read up on it. I said, “This is a pretty hot topic field - weak interaction physics.”
So I came, and I got to hire Tom Bowles, Hamish Robertson, and a few other very great people who since have left, but that’s OK too., People come and move elsewhere and take their careers in different directions. But the first experiment we did was a tritium beta decay experiment, and I worked on it with Hamish and Tom, and that was an exciting time.
So it turned out to be a great move for me personally, professionally because the physics was exciting, the people were really good, and I got to see management at a small enough level. There were only about 30 to 35 people in our group, and about 15 or so were scientists; the rest were technicians, so support people and so on. And to me, that was a nice introduction because I could still do research, and publish papers.
But this was not a lateral move for you. As group leader, this was a step up.
Yes, absolutely, this was definitely a step up- definitely a step up. And I didn’t really care so much about that moving there. I mean, I wasn’t thinking about, well, that’ll lead to this. That’ll lead to—I never even thought about that. I just thought, wow, this sounds like really a lot of fun in my career, so let’s go do this for a while, and see where it leads. And I never thought about anything else.
Now, I’m curious, John, when you got there, just like at Livermore, did you have that connection, the generational connection with the founding fathers of Los Alamos? Had that generation—were they still around or were they still closely connected to that previous founding generation?
Yes, there were a lot of them who were very tightly connected
So who were some of those key links to that founding generation that you interacted with?
Harold Agnew had just left Los Alamos but kept connections. George Cowan who later helped start the Santa Fe Institute. Bob Thorn who was a top weapons designer. Nerses Krikorian who was a uranium chemist. There were ties in all the Divisions, including the Theoretical division (T) that was originally headed by Hans Bethe who regularly visited the lab as did many other alumni. George Bell was T-Division leader when I arrived. I don’t know who he is.
So George became a mentor of mine, actually, as I took on management jobs. He was really a wonderful guy to work with. Also John Hopkins, who was maybe 10 or 15 years older than me, but John had connections to the early days of nuclear atmospheric nuclear testing, and so on. And so there was quite a cadre of people you could get to know.
I think it was only two or three years after that that Don Kerr, who was Los Alamos Director at the time, held the 40th anniversary of Los Alamos’s founding in 1983. And he invited back all of the remaining people from the Manhattan project. And so, Feynman came back and Wigner and Rabi -- it was a really [laugh] wonderful homecoming for a young guy to see. For me, I got to listen to them all tell their stories.
Now, was your sense when you got there that you were on a track that was going to lead ultimately to you heading the entire organization?
When did you first get that sense that that was sort of where your trajectory was headed?
It wasn’t for a long time actually. After I was the group leader of P-3, Keyworth decided to organize all of nuclear physics into one group. So my group grew from 30 people to about 80 or 90 overnight. So I had all the nuclear physics in P Division. And then he gets picked to be Reagan’s science advisor, so now he’s gone.
And Don Kerr asks me if I’ll be head of the Physics division. Well, that’s a big job. There were 400 people in the Physics division, and it was everything from, laser, plasma physics, to solid-state physics, you name it. And that was a big jump. I mean, that was, for me, a management jump. That was no longer a research group job.
Managing a group of 400 people and making sure you can do all the best research and deliver on programs- that was full-time, and more than full-time, I found. I think that was the first position in which I started to think, well, maybe my career’s going somewhere different than I thought it was going. But I still kept my scientific fingers in some things.
But the amount of time I had to be an active researcher was very limited. It was weekends or nights and weekends- that kind of thing. Don Kerr then a few years later asked me—about three years later—to be an Associate Director of the lab. I was 42 years old. Yeah, that’s right, I was 42 years old.
And so he said, “I want you to be associate director of all the experimental physics at the lab.” And I thought [laugh] now I’ve got LAMPF under me. I’ve got the Magnetic Fusion program. I’ve got Accelerator Technology division, plus the Physics division. And that was again yet another step, all in a short period of time. And that’s when I started to think about my life is very, very different than when I came to Los Alamos.
After that time, I got exposed to more and more people in Washington because I had to go defend programs in DOE or in Congress. I had to go testify for the first time in Congress during that period to argue for a new building for neutron scattering research. That was an interesting experience.
I’d never been in Congress [laugh] since I was an eighth grade student on a field trip. I’d never had to testify to Congress before. And my counterpart next to me was Hermann Grunder [laugh]. Well, you know Hermann. Hermann and I are very good friends, but Hermann [laugh] didn’t need a microphone. His voice is so loud that he didn’t need the microphone [laugh].
And he was arguing for some facility. I think it was the Advanced Light Source at Berkeley. And I was arguing for this facility for neutron scattering at Los Alamos. So I was in a different world. I was living in a different world at that time.
What was your sense overall in the way that the relationship between the DOE and Los Alamos was different between the DOE and its relationship with Livermore?
There’s a very different culture to the two laboratories, and it was very clear to me when I moved from Livermore to Los Alamos. Livermore has always been, in my opinion, more programmatic than Los Alamos. Los Alamos has been more interested in the science, even though they had—clearly had the same mission responsibilities that Livermore had.
As a matter of fact, Los Alamos actually had a larger fraction of the stockpile to worry about than Livermore did. A large number of weapons in the stockpile were Los Alamos weapons, not Livermore weapons. But the approach that Los Alamos tended to take was always more of a scientific approach.
Livermore tended to err more on the side of we can do this with whatever we know now. We don’t have to do any more research. We’ll just go build it and do it. Los Alamos was more of we better understand this more deeply before we go any further.
And I think it was recognized in DOE that there was this difference. And there was a funny pressure from DOE. I think the pressure for Los Alamos, you have to be a little bit more like Livermore. Livermore, you need to be a little more like Los Alamos.
You see what I mean?
There was constantly this thing. They were playing us off against each other a little bit.
Even though the missions of the two labs were different?
No, the core missions were essentially the same, although both labs pursued different paths in their emphasis.
I really felt that Los Alamos was a very, very different place. And, I mean, there were pluses and minuses to that as well because sometimes Los Alamos, I think, over-researched stuff, if you know what I mean. Sometimes they never gave up their research bent to actually get the job done.
There were times when I think they could’ve solved the problem, and still done all the science they wanted, but they stretched it out by wanting to do the best science. Well, that’s not bad. But when you’re doing a program, sometimes you have to find a balance—when do you stop the research, and take the next step in the program, and then go back if you have to do more research.
I’m curious as you had moved up in the hierarchy, the extent to which you felt the political winds of change in Washington, and how they might have affected what was going on in Los Alamos? So an easy one is, for example, just the transition from Carter to Reagan. Did that transition and all that that entailed in terms of the way that he wanted to take national security and SDI and things like that, did those kinds of things reverberate all the way back to you at Los Alamos? Did you feel those things happening in Washington?
Oh, big-time, big-time. The energy programs were significant in the Carter era, but when Reagan came in, those budgets were whacked, I mean, literally cut deeply.
I was running the Physics division at that time, and I had to fire ~100 people out of the 400 people in my division. That was the most painful period I had had as a manager, right. We wound up finding jobs for a fraction of them, but not all of them. A lot of people literally lost their jobs, and had to move on from Los Alamos to somewhere else in their career. It was a very sad time.
Then there was a major build-up in the weapons program because Reagan decided to renew the stockpile. If you remember that was one of his commitments to deal with the Soviets and so on. And so there was a lot of money that came into the weapons program for new nuclear weapon systems.
And two of the groups that I had responsibility for in the weapons program were diagnostic groups of the Nevada test site. They measured neutrons and gamma rays, and took pictures —nuclear pictures, right, not photographs, but neutron imaging, gamma ray imaging, that kind of measurement. I took advantage of that buildup during that period because one of the problems we were having was that we really needed better resolution on our X-rays. And we were starting to get involved with X-ray optics at the time.
And so the Brookhaven Light Source was coming on line. So I went back to DOE Defense Programs, and argued that we should build a beamline at the NSLS to do X-ray optics for the people trying to improve their capabilities. The other reason was that I wanted that group to do more physics. I thought they were too set in their ways of how they did their measurements. They were not as modern as they could be, in my view.
And this was one way to get them to rub shoulders with other people doing atomic physics, with, X- ray beamlines and so on. So we got that funded, and had a beamline there, and eventually got beamlines at several facilities, e.g., SSRL, with Livermore, and so on. But to me, that was one of my responsibilities as division leader that I felt I had.
Even though I knew this build-up in the weapons program was for making more bombs, I said, “This is an opportunity to do more physics, things we don’t know how to do today. And the money’s there, so we ought to try and do it now while we can get the resources to do it.”
Now one small item I’m interested in, when you headed the Physics division, I see that there was a biophysics program at Los Alamos. What was—
Right, that was an exciting time.
What was Los Alamos’s interest in biophysics?
Ah, that’s a good question. [laugh] It was twofold. There was a fellow who worked in nuclear physics named Ed Flynn. Ed came to me while I was Physics division leader. I knew that his wife had been seriously injured in an automobile accident, and her brain was severely damaged. I guess, essentially, they weren’t sure what her electrical activity was anymore.
And Ed came to me, and he said, “Would you support me for a year to learn how to build a device that measures the magnetic fields out of the brain, magnetoencephalography?” He said, “Superconducting SQUID technology is advancing to the point where I think I can build a helmet to go around a person’s head, and measure their electrical activity.”
And I had some discretionary funds at that time [laugh] so I gave—I think I gave him like four or five hundred thousand dollars and said, “Can you start a program on that?” And he started it, and it looked like it was going to be very, very promising. And so I went to see Senator Domenici, and told him what we were trying to do.
And Senator Domenici’s wife was there, and she got really excited about us working on medical physics. And so Domenici found us some additional funds to start this program. And then from there, it expanded into a biophysics program because Los Alamos already had a bioscience program (mostly biology) at the time, which went back to the old days of effects of radiation on human beings and so on.
In T Division, George Bell and Walter Goad started some of the initial work on—theoretical work on immunology, and how the immune system works. And that led to some work between T Division and the biology division on—that led the gene bank—the bank of all the gene sequences. The Bioscience Division had done some beautiful work on cell sorting – called flow cytometry that was also key to future directions.
It’s really an unsung story at the Department of Energy that the genome project—it’s not NIH; it’s DOE.
It’s DOE, yeah, that’s exactly right. So as I started to work on this, there were a couple of other guys in the Physics division. And you probably know Herb Anderson
He worked at the University of Chicago as a student of Enrico Fermi. He also worked on the Manhattan Project. Herb was working in the Los Alamos Physics division at the time on a high-energy physics problem. He came to see me, and said, “These biologists have it all wrong in how they measure electrophoresis.” So he started telling me that he had a bunch of people who had a better idea of how to sequence long DNA molecules and so on.
So I told Herb, “Go ahead and do it. See what comes out of it.” And then I wound up meeting Charles DeLisi in DOE. Charles was the head of the Office of Biological Environmental Sciences at the time, and Charles and I talked. It turns out Charles used to be a postdoc for George Bell back in the ‘70s. [laugh]
And he liked Los Alamos, so he said, “John, this is great.” He said, “Would you help me? I have this idea that we could actually build a human genome sequencing program.” And we went out and we drank beer for a couple of times [laugh] after work, and we just talked about this.
And I went back and talked to the Los Alamos Director, and said, “This is a great opportunity. We ought to combine physics, theory and the biology department, and really start pushing this stuff .” And one thing led to another, as you said, it’s a great story.
And about a year ago, I talked to Charles DeLisi about the early days. And he said, “Yeah, John,” he said, “I know, nobody remembers those days. All they remember is the NIH and all of the ultimate success and the glory.”
He said, “But if you remember,” he said, “they blasted us in public. Told us it was nonsense, that you physicists should stay out of our area. You don’t know what you’re talking about. It can never work. It’s too big.” [laugh] Really interesting story. I believe Charles DeLisi has written that story up.
That’s amazing. That’s amazing.
And so what was your next move after being associate laboratory director? Where do you go from there?
Well, Sig Hecker came in as Director after Don Kerr left in 1985—late ‘85. And when Sig took over, he asked me to take over a different job. He said, “I want you to be AD for all research at the lab.” And I said, “OK.” Now I’ve got biology, chemistry, theory, and physics.
This is a lateral move or this is another step up?
It’s a lateral move. It’s still an associate director. It’s just a broader responsibility, more divisions, larger programs. And then he also said, “And I want you to run our LDRD program.” And I think you know what LDRD is. It’s Laboratory Directed R&D. I believe LDRD was about $35M in 1986.
So I tried to put a strategy together on what we should be investing in. And guess what one of the first things I put $5 million into? Human Genome Project. [laugh]
There you go, right.
[laugh] I was in that job only for about nine months when he said, “I want you to switch laterally, and run all of our defense research and applications programs,” which meant of al of our non-nuclear programs for the DoD, including the SDI programs, and all of our intelligence programs. And I said, “That’s really outside my expertise.” He said, “Yeah, that’s exactly why I want you to do it.” And he said, “I want you to broaden your background.” So I agreed to do that job.
So at this point, I assume you’re getting the sense that you’re being groomed?
Yeah, I did- at least as part of a “pool” of people. While there is never any guarantee in this approach, he said he wanted there to be a group of people that the University of California could tap into internally who had a broad enough background to run the whole laboratory. That was a very responsible action by him as Lab Director. When Sig came in as Director, He made a big jump from deputy division leader in material science and engineering to Lab Director.
Well, he was a great guy; really smart. He and I had worked together. But he came into that job with not a lot of experience to run a major laboratory. It was a big step for Sig, and the first year was really hard for him. I think he was learning on the job, and we all supported him, and he became really good at it.
But I think he was also thinking about his own experience - of how I got thrown into this [laugh] and I didn’t know anything about this program or that program or how the lab worked in this area, and so on. So taking on Defense Research & Applications was a big responsibility for me because most of the job was on the road, frankly. There was one year where I was on travel 65% of the year, and mostly dealing with the Pentagon or the intelligence community.
And it was a different world for me than was the research community, because the arguments are different. When you try to sell a basic science program, your passion and enthusiasm is different than when you’re trying to talk about a neutral particle beam or a free electron laser or something else, right. It’s totally different.
Now in this—
It was a very—go ahead.
In this role, you now have more direct contact with the DOE Office of Energy—of Energy Research, which would become the Office of Science?
Well that was when I was in the job as AD for Research. I got to know a lot of the people. Al Trivelpiece was head of the Office of Energy Research, when I was involved with him. We unteracted together quite a bit. Later, Bill Brinkman, I dealt with, but I was in a different job then. I’m trying to think who came after Trivelpiece.
I dealt a lot with Martha Krebs when she was head of the Office of Science. Oh, I know who it was. There was a period there where Bob Hunter was the head of the Office of Science. That was during the SSC period.
I had to deal quite often with General Abrahamson, who was the head of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, and with a lot of people in the intel community, which turned out to be important later in my life. And many military officers, including generals, people who I had never really dealt with in my career.
Yeah. But in this position, this was a relatively short position for you because later that year, you become associate laboratory director for defense research and applications.
So why was this such a short tenure? What was your sense of that?
It was two reasons. One was the person who was doing the job for Hecker left, Steve Rockwood. I don’t know if you know Steve. A very, very smart guy, wound up moving to become vice president of SAIC, and so it was a big step up for Steve. And I guess there was no obvious successor to Steve. And I think Sig looked at that and also looked at the fact that this might be good for my career to move over and do some really hardcore defense-related research.
Now, did you keep ALDR in your portfolio or you let go of that?
I let go of it; totally let go of it. A very sad time actually. I had mixed feelings about it because I was—as I said earlier, I was really excited about the Human Genome Project. And there were a lot of things we were doing in research at that time that I came back to work on maybe 10 years later when I was Director. But this new position was sort of a big demarcation in my career by giving up that work, and moving in this direction. I had to think differently. I had to develop skills that I hadn’t had before and—
Like what? What kind of skills did you need now?
I would say that the planning aspect of major programs. When you were talking at the scale of $100 million, you have to learn how to cut through the BS of somebody trying to tell you why their idea was going to work, right. And it’s interesting how I decided to it. Do you know the name George Heilmeier?
George was on an advisory committee for Don Kerr and I got to know George, and we got to like each other. I would pick him up at the Santa Fe airport, and we’d have dinner together, and so on. So when I took this job, I called George. He was the president of Bellcore at the time. And I said, “I have no idea what I’m doing. [laugh] Here’s what my portfolio is.” He said, “Are you familiar with the investment banker questions?”, he said. “When I was head of DARPA, I had my investment banker questions.” “You need your investment banker questions.”
“People have to tell you what they’re going to do, why they’re going to do it, how much it’s going to cost and,”—and he said, “They have to be able to explain it in simple terms, no bullshit, right. Then he said, “The last question is the most important one, and I want you to print this bold and put it over your desk: Why Los Alamos? Why should Los Alamos do this?” So I actually had those printed up on a sign, put them over my desk.
[laugh] You did? You really did? [laugh]
Yeah, I did. [laugh] And when people would come in, I would say, “OK, answer my questions.” And a lot of people couldn’t answer them because they’d never thought about it that way. And so that was really a transition for me to make myself think like a DARPA program manager thinks, right. And they don’t have a lot of time. They have to invest in things that really matter. But they’ve got to get it right too.
So when that question was not rhetorical, right, when you heard the most compelling answers to the question, “Why Los Alamos?” what were they? What were the most compelling answers that you would hear that would make you say, “Yeah, that makes sense to me”?
Well, first, we had the kind of expertise that nobody else had in some areas. And our edge might be clever people, it might be equipment, facilities, or it might be that we have a unique idea that looks like it can solve the problem. And to me if you have a unique idea, nobody else has that idea, it’s worth exploring whether someone should take a look at that as the solution, rather than just another person coming in trying to tell DARPA or the Department of Defense how to do their job, right.
There were a lot of things we rejected. I would say probably two-thirds of the stuff that people came to me, and we said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” I’ll give you an example of one. One guy wanted to use one of our lasers to look at the effect of laser burning on soldiers’ skin, and he was going to shoot the lasers at little pigs. And I said, “I don’t see any science in that, and, what happens if the pigs get loose, and they run down Pajarito Road”—
–“with little burns on their side?” [laugh]
So, anyway, there are those kind of decisions you had to make and people would get very angry because it’s their pet project and so on. And I’m sure we rejected some things that probably were good to pursue. But did they answer the “Why Los Alamos” question?
And where were most of these proposals coming from? Where were these people affiliated with? Where were they coming from?
Technical divisions. They were usually people who were not fully funded by the nuclear weapons program or other programs. So this work that we did for DoD and the Intel community was called work for other agencies. And that money had to be generated every year new. There was no continuing budget. And so the pressure was huge—I mean, we built that program when I was in there to about $400 million a year. And the pressure was it could go away overnight if you lost your support in the Pentagon and we almost did lose it several times in the SDI program when we were working on the neutral particle beam.
General Abrahamson called me on the phone. He said, “I’m zeroing out the neutral particle beam program.” And I flew back to DC that day on an airplane, and to explain why that was not a smart thing to do. And then after he listened, he said, “Actually, you’re right, I need the NPB in my program,” And it was a unique capability that he needed in his program. It wasn’t that we were building a space-based platform, although that was a long-term possibility. It was we were building a capability for discriminating decoys from RVs that nothing else could do in his program. And that’s what kind of got his wheels thinking. He said, “I have no way to solve that problem, do I?” He had no way to deal with Soviet decoys.
And the neutral particle beam had the potential to discriminate between the real thing and decoys very quickly.
Now, one program you had in your portfolio during these years that I don’t recognize is the Inertial Confinement Fusion Program. I don’t recognize that. What was that?
That’s what today you would recognize as Livermore’s NIF.
Yeah, it is using lasers to compress a pellet, and create pure fusion in the laboratory. We were doing it with CO2 lasers at Los Alamos. Livermore was using neodymium glass lasers. Turned out that CO2 was the wrong wavelength; it had a longer wavelength than neodymium glass. And long wavelengths (microwaves) work great for cooking chicken, but they don’t work so great for compressing pellets, OK.
So we switched gears away from CO2 to develop a small effort to build krypton fluoride lasers, which are UV lasers, which have a shorter wavelength than what Livermore has in NIF. But the program in Washington decided to kill us. They said, “We can’t afford both programs. We’re going to go with Livermore’s program.”
Now this question is going to—it’s going to bleed over into your next position, you know, director for computational information systems. And it’s the overall question of how does the process of the end of the Cold War affect Los Alamos generally? That’s a very broad question, and I’m just—you know, really from reading tea leaves from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the—I say the process because it’s not a dramatic kind of thing, right.
The falling apart of the Soviet Empire really takes place over the course of two, three years. And so obviously, that process is of prime interest to Los Alamos and the things that it’s doing. And so as this process is playing out, I wonder if you could talk—sort of generally walk me through that narrative of watching this unfold, and what that means for Los Alamos in general?
Yeah, it did have a big effect. But you’re correct that it was not an overnight effect. But there was a general appreciation that the world had changed, and that in particular the nuclear weapons world was going to change the most dramatically in the coming years. And we started to see the budgets falling from 1988 into the period before Bush stopped nuclear testing. Everyone was looking for a peace dividend from the end of the Cold War.
We had several major voluntary reductions in force at Los Alamos from 1988 through 1995 to deal with declining budgets. We lost a large fraction of the old, experienced workforce. The people who could retire, did retire. A lot of expertise went out the door, and nobody came in to replace them. We were not hiring, right, because there was no money to hire.
So this transition process dominated Sig Hecker’s strategic planning and the rest of the laboratory throughout that period. And a lot of things came to the fore. Should we look at more basic research? Should we look at working with industry? Should we look at working with the Department of Defense? What is the future of the laboratory?
There were a lot of hard-nosed discussions during that period. And to the credit of the weapons lab directors, the three weapons laboratories got together several times, and we would discuss this with the senior management of each laboratory, and we’d argue it through. But that was healthy because we were—we saw we were in the same boat, right.
And it wasn’t Los Alamos against Livermore, or Sandia standing off the side, holding our coats, letting us fight it out. We were all in the same fight together. I think it affected a lot of our thinking during that period. Some of it we got right, and some of it we got not so right.
I think our follow-up on the human genome was very important during that time. And Sig, to his credit, really got behind it when it became a big program, and he put his personal energy behind that during that period. I thought that was a big win for us doing that.
Then he decided that he did not want to be as heavily engaged with the Department of Defense. And that was one of the reasons why my program started to dribble off too because SDI, as you remember around 1990, was changing character quite a bit. When George H. W. Bush came in as president, it was not the same as Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t his program, right.
And so the money was starting to dry up then. It didn’t go away. There were programs still going on in SDI. But it was clear that the handwriting was on the wall for SDI as well. So Sig wanted out of that or at least to deemphasize it.
And at that time, we recognized computing was one of our strengths, scientific computing. And we had done some of the early work on massively parallel computing with Thinking Machines Corporation. Danny Hillis—you know that name? Danny Hillis created the thinking machine, first massively parallel—
—computer. He was at MIT at the time. And we had, I think, the second Thinking Machine [laugh] computer at our lab. And so Sig thought we ought to invest in computing as a capability that can go in lots of directions. And that was one of his arguments for creating this Computational and Information Sciences Directorate. It wasn’t just computing for science; it was computing for information systems because he recognized that processing large databases was going to be a major issue in science and technology.
So we created that directorate in 1991-92 time period. And I thought we were going gangbusters. We had this advanced computing laboratory that we formed, which was outside the fence so that people—students could come in, industry could come in and work on advanced machines and codes. That was an exciting time. And a fellow named Andy White at our lab headed that up and did a great job with the advanced computing laboratory.
Was your sense that computational and information sciences was a pivot? Was it way for Los Alamos to make—to keep itself relevant in a post-Cold War world, or were these things really already in train when the Soviet threat was as high as ever?
Well, super-computing was always a focus in the weapons labs going back to the Manhattan project. At that time, we used to call the super computers, Big Iron. - machines to run the large weapons codes, right? Hecker and others recognized that if you want to go to advanced computing in the future, it’s not going to be the way we did it before.
We’re going to have to have new types of architectures. We’re going to have to have new types of codes. And they can be applicable to more than just nuclear weapons. So it was a shift in the philosophy. We would still do the weapons work, but the advanced machines and new codes could be applied to a lot of other science or engineering problems.
Now, when you’re named program director in 1993, your portfolio—it’s remarkable. I think it really aligns well with some of the broader priorities in the Clinton administration generally, given the fact that the NIH budget had essentially doubled during those years. And in fact, you’re back onto the biophysics that you had left off from the previous decade. So I assume this is a very welcome development for you?
It was. [laugh] It was like going home. [laugh] It was an easy transition for me because I knew all the people in all the offices in DOE that I had to work with as well as the people at the lab. And it was not like, well, I have to come in and introduce myself. Here’s who I am, and so on. Yeah, that was—actually, I enjoyed those four years. That was an exciting time for me.
And the first thing that happened was part of my portfolio was the demise of LAMPF. And the nuclear physics program for fiscal year ‘94 zeroed out LAMPF. They decided that LAMPF was no longer going to part of their major facilities, and I had to figure out what do I do with that, because it’s an incredible facility.
And that’s when we decided to switch the mission to neutron science, and I got Vic Reis to support the idea as the new head of DOE Defense Programs who was putting together the Science Based Stockpile Stewardship program. He had a group of people he called Navigators to help create this program. He invited me in as his science guy from Los Alamos. He had a science guy from Livermore (Dick Fortner), and a science guy from Sandia (Gerry Yonas). There were key weapons leaders – John Immele (LANL); George Miller (LLNL), and Roger Hagengruber (SNL).
Vic created this new concept for nuclear weapons - Science Based Stockpile Stewardship. He saw that the weapons labs were key and that they each needed major facilities to carry out this program. He said “…you have to have a Nordstrom in your mall.”
Every facility, you had to have a Nordstrom. You know Vic. He’s really [laugh] a character, right? But his leadership during that period was outstanding.
I had known Vic for quite a long time, going back when he was in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He worked under Jay Keyworth in the White House. And so I met Vic the first time there, and then I knew him at DARPA, and I knew him when he was DDR&E because I was doing that kind of work then in those days.
But, anyway, I sold Vic on the idea that we could take the accelerator, turn it into a neutron science facility in support of the weapons program, but also do neutron scattering for biology, chemistry, physics, etc. And he bought off on that, and put it in as part of his budget for Science Based Stockpile Stewardship. So it partially solved my budget problem where I had no nuclear physics money. [laugh] One of the most exciting things that came out of that period was proton radiography. I don’t know if you’ve heard much about proton radiography.
One of the really smart nuclear physicists that worked at LAMPF was a fellow named Chris Morris. And Chris and I were good friends, and Chris came to see me. He said, “I think I can use protons just like you use neutrons for imaging, except they’ll be better because I can refocus the protons after they go through something and reimage them with high resolution.” I said, “I don’t believe that. There’ll be too much multiple scattering. It’ll just be a blur.”
Well, about two weeks later, he came back to me with a picture of an image that said “LANL” [laugh) that he had taken with protons. [laugh] But, anyway, that has become a major, major program at Los Alamos now in the applied world. It’s just—and it’s beautiful work, absolutely beautiful work that he and his colleagues have done. But we never would’ve guessed that we were going to do proton radiography when we first sold Vic on an accelerator.
Now, how well-developed was the Neutron Science Center before you became program director?
It was pretty well-developed. It suffered, in my opinion, from a lack of attention at the highest levels. The—
Why? Was it not sexy enough for people at the highest levels? What do you think accounted for that?
I think it wasn’t their idea originally so—
Oh, I see, right, no pride of ownership?
Yeah, I don’t think there was any pride of ownership, and it had a lot of technical problems in reliability of the beam for the user community. So the users weren’t happy. Roger Pynn was my deputy and he was an expert in neutron scattering. So we saw our job was to make the users happy, the user community. We worked on building the user community up, more users, get them involved in deciding more things, and trying to get more support for different instrumentation so the community could do different things. We changed the name from LAMPF to LANSCE (the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center) to highlight the change in direction.
And it was a real struggle, and I will say we didn’t quite get there during my tenure. [laugh] But I think we put the place on the right path. We got the right agreements between the Office of Science and Defense Programs. We put a memorandum of agreement together that said they will jointly support running this facility, which is a big deal. They don’t like signing MOUs in government. But they did, and that was renewed for many years.
So they both put money into it. The Office of Science would only put money into science, which we said was fine. They wouldn’t put money into the facility. They’d put money into instruments, but not into operations. And we said, “That’s fine.” I had to sell that to a lot of people who in Defense Programs said, “Why are we paying the bill for operating it, and they get a free ride and just do the science?” And I explained to them it was in their best interests. [laugh].
And it is. And I explained why. Because some of the materials science measurements were for materials of importance to the weapons program. They didn’t have to build new instruments to get their data. So this is back to—almost back—coming full circle to Teller’s argument that you do good science, and it folds back into the program in ways you can’t predict.
Yeah, right, I can see that that stayed with you.
Yeah. Yeah, it did, big-time. After I retired, Sandia and Los Alamos have asked me to come back when they’ve had management training programs for young managers. And I told them that story. I said, “You got to remember ‘why Los Alamos?’” And one of the reasons why is because you can do good science to support the mission, but it can come the other way around too, yeah.
Right. Now, you were dealing with nuclear waste issues also during this time. I’m curious the extent to which you were involved in the larger issues with Yucca Mountain and Harry Reid and all of those things that were really a top-line agenda item in Washington at the time?
Just a little bit; I didn’t have any direct responsibility for that, but I did know the people involved, and stayed abreast of what the issues were, technical issues, and so on. We were more intrigued with a bigger—what I would call a strategic issue. That is why don’t we burn the waste? Right. Burn it to the point where instead of it being a 10,000-year problem or a million year-problem, it’s a 300-year problem.
Because if you can do that, I believe that our society has examples where things can be stored for 300 years and dealt with. I don’t know how to deal sociologically with 10,000-year problems or million-year problems, right, which is what they still are dealing with in long term geologic storage. That’s why we really focused on the argument that accelerators can actually burn the waste down to 300 years, and they can. It’s just a question of, is the country willing to invest in that?
So you’re saying that it’s fundamentally a budgetary thing? This is not a concern over health impacts or anything like that? It’s just a matter of we have the funds; are we willing to invest in to do it this way?
Yeah, I think fundamentally that’s the argument; the reactor and electric power industry do not want to put money into something like that. They say, “That’s the government’s problem. It’s their waste. It’s not my waste, right.” That’s partially the problem the country faces is no one owns the waste except the government.
And then the government says, “We don’t want to put money in new technology—we’re already putting a lot of money into burying this stuff. Why do I want to put money into burning it?” And are there technical issues? Of course there are going to be technical issues. I don’t mean to make light of the technical issues.
The biggest technical issue is the chemistry of taking the waste and making it into forms that are burnable. You’ve got to get it out of the waste form it’s in and convert it into fuel—but those are not insurmountable problems. And the reason they’re not insurmountable problems is we do that to make nuclear weapons, right. [laugh] How do you get plutonium in the first place? [laugh] Right. Yeah.
So, I’ve argued with Ernie Moniz about this a lot. Ernie will support research on transmutation of waste. He just does not want to build anything yet because he thinks that the problem isn’t far enough along technically to build anything. And that’s just his opinion, and that’s fine.
And he would rather drill a bore hole down in the ocean floor and put it under there. And I always say, “Look, what if the world sometime needs this energy? There’s all this energy that we’re throwing away. Why do you want to throw all that energy away?”
All right. Now, I want to get to the transition to you being named director in November 1997. So my first question there is, obviously it’s lonely at the top, and you don’t really know the full spectrum of all of the issues until you get into that position, right. But my question is, the problems that came to a head in 2002, they didn’t pop up overnight, and they certainly didn’t pop up only during your tenure as Director.
So my question is, when you decide to take on this position, how much are you girding yourself knowing, right, that these things are there? It’s not going to be so easy to resolve them because they’re structural and they’re decades long, and perhaps maybe this is going to be a bigger problem than what I wanted to sign on for to begin with. How—just in terms of the constellation of ideas going through your mind, just sort of walk me through your decision-making process as you’re offered this position, and how you intend to deal with it once you become director in November ‘97.
Yeah, good point, good point. I did realize that there were a lot of issues. Some of them I thought were short-term issues that I could deal with.
Right. So let’s compartmentalize them. What would be some short-term—like some low-hanging fruit that you could just, you know, “I got this. We can take care of this”?
I don’t think Sig really wanted to leave as Director, frankly. I don’t know if he was forced or not, but he had this reduction in force in 1995 that led to a class action lawsuit against the University of California. He fired 200 people, and the justification for firing those people was that he decided to lower the overhead of the laboratory budget by $50 million. Admittedly, Secretary of Energy O’Leary was pushing for overhead reductions at that time. But that RIF affected mostly Hispanic people because they were in the jobs that were in those overhead positions.
And so I thought I could solve that in a period of time, and I thought I had a short-term and a long-term solution to the problem. The short-term solution was that we would have to negotiate a settlement. We were not going to be able to walk away and just snub our nose at 200 people who have the publicity in all the local newspapers day in and day out about how rotten we are.
And so we actually wound up settling it in about six or seven months. It cost the University of California some money. It cost us some positions because we agreed to hire back some people who we thought were not fairly treated in the firing process. And there were some people who we said we’d never take back because we thought they were poor performing employees and should’ve been fired long ago , and the track record was there to justify that decision. It was just that nobody had taken the action to fire them.
So we actually did wind up settling it, and the RIF issue went away very quickly after that. It just sort of dropped off the radar screen for—in the newspaper. There were still unhappy people. I don’t mean to say that. But it was viewed as a fair settlement by the local community, by the larger community in Northern New Mexico, by the university, and by the legal system. They all said it was a fair solution.
The longer-term part of that problem was addressed by creating the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation. Before that time, we had no way to support the communities in our area because you can’t use government funds. It’s appropriated for specific programmatic purposes. So we created a foundation, and got Senator Domenici and Senator Bingaman to support us, and the DOE supported this too. And the University of California kicked in money, and we sort of started slowly.
And the purpose of the foundation was essentially to build community relationships, improve community relationships. It’s still going today, 23 years later, and it’s more powerful and has a bigger impact in Northern New Mexico than I ever could’ve imagined. As part of this Foundation, we started scholarship programs for all the kids in the local region; not just Los Alamos; but Santa Fe, Española, Taos, and all these little communities. And we put our own money behind it.
We have an annual giving campaign for scholarships for high school students. And now there are so many scholarships available for kids in Northern New Mexico. So that helped address the longer-term problem. You know, there’s still going to be arguments about why does Los Alamos do this, and why doesn’t do that…and that’s always going to be the case of any large institution in any community. I mean, that never goes away.
But I think we solved that problem- at least partially. Now, what problem didn’t I solve? I knew that our business systems were antiquated. And how did I know our business systems were antiquated? Well, I was AD for computational and information sciences, and I dug into that problem.
You probably knew better than anybody else?
Oh, my god, it was horrible. I mean, nothing talked to anything. Data was not available on a timely basis for managers at all levels to make good decisions. I had visited Xeroz PARC (Palo alto Research Center) during that period, and I talked to their chief scientist, whose name also is John Brown, by the way, without an E. [laugh] But, anyway, we were looking at what PARC was doing for their management, for business information systems. And they had everything on the desktop already.
Well, it’s private industry. These things matter.
Yeah, exactly, and they were at the head of the list in developing capabilities. So I wanted to do that at Los Alamos, and when I was director, I brought in some expert groups, e.g., The Gartner Group. And they came and gave us advice, which we followed up on, and we had—my goodness, it’s dropping off my mind. Larry Ellison’s company—what’s the name of Larry Ellison’s company…?
Oracle, of course. We brought Oracle in to start building new business systems for Los Alamos. The goal was to have desktop IT systems that had up to date information on finances, property management, programmatic milestones, etc. But we just never got through the process by the time those whistleblowers said we had these terrible problems, which, in my opinion, if you read all the reports, will tell you that we did have problems? Yes. Did we know we had problems? Yes. Were we working on fixing the problems? Yes. Was the problem as big as they painted it? No. We did not lose millions and millions of dollars. We didn’t lose thousands of pieces of equipment. And that’s where—
So where’s the disconnect? Where’s the disconnect here? I mean, are we saying that there’s deliberate fabrication in terms of describing the nature of the problem? Who’s not speaking to who that’s making this disagreement come out in the open like this?
Well, these two individuals, in my opinion, as former policemen came into a large national laboratory with a different policing mindset that we normally saw. One was a state cop, and the other was some kind of policeman. I don’t know exactly why they were hired, frankly. But once they were hired, nobody gave them a charter as to what their job was.
So they had only been at the lab a few months before they decided by reading certain reports that we were hiding information from the general public. So they had only snippets of information. Somebody wrote something in an email or this or that. They were not privy to the whole budget of the laboratory. They were not privy to our management and control systems for equipment.
They said things like, “Well, we couldn’t find this particular computer.” Well, the answer was the reason we couldn’t find that particular computer was it was destroyed in an experiment at the Nevada Test Site or it was permanently installed in an experiment at Brookhaven. They said, “I couldn’t find a magnet, a big, million-dollar magnet at LAMPF.” Well, guess what, the million-dollar magnet’s sitting under 20 feet of concrete and steel shielding to prevent radiation from getting out to the employees or the public, but it’s there.
But they didn’t understand that DOE does not inventory property the way a business does. If you’re at IBM, and you buy a computer, five years later that computer is obsolete, right. So IBM writes off the computer. DOE does not write off the computer. If you’ve got a 30-year-old piece of equipment, it’s still worth what you paid for it in 1980. I don’t know why they do that, but that’s how they did their management of property.
So at that time, we were totally in compliance with DOE’s rules for finding property. We matched everything they said. Well, then, these people come in and said, “Yeah, but you can’t find 100%.” Well, DOE doesn’t say you have to find 100%. Can you imagine going into McDonald’s and saying, “You have to find 100% of everything—piece of property you own”?
They would say, “You’re nuts. I’m not going to do that. It costs me more money than it’s worth,” right. So were we missing some equipment? Sure. Did some people steal a few things? Probably, we are managing a small city of 14,000 people on site at any time. I can’t say they didn’t. Was it massive? There’s no way it was massive. And we know that because we did a 100% wall to wall inventory as a response to their accusations and the losses were not large as they claimed.
The other question there is you have to look at this in the context of where is Los Alamos with regard to other national laboratories? Was Los Alamos such an outlier with these problems, as far as you could tell?
No, I’ve talked to several other laboratory directors about this. I won’t use their names so I can keep it off the record. But they all told me when it hit, they all said, “Oh, my god, if they’re going there, we all have this problem.” They all said it, and these are really respected people with whom I still am a friend. They just said, “John, you got caught in the ringer. If it’d happened to us, we would’ve been in the ringer too because it’s the same issue at our lab.”
Right. So I guess then, I mean, the inevitable question there is to what extent are these not—is this about bigger issues than budgetary line items and that kind of thing? And that of course gets me to the question about the security situation with Wen Ho Lee, right. So, first of all, walk me through this in terms of when you first heard about this, if you knew him individually, what you understood as the structural and security issues that allowed for this to happen in the first place.
Yeah, good point. I first found out about Wen Ho Lee about a week before I became director. I had a meeting with Sig. We called it the passing of the keys meeting. He was going to hand over the “keys to the Lab”. So he told me about all of these problems and issues, and I knew about most of them anyway. The last thing he says before the meeting’s over is, “And, oh, by the way, the FBI thinks we have a spy in Los Alamos.” [laugh] I said, “What?”
[laugh] And, oh, by the way? [laugh]
Yeah, oh, by the way? [laugh] So I happened—he said, “You got to go talk to this individual,” who I knew was head of our counterintelligence program. And he and I were good friends. But Sig didn’t want to talk—
And this is internal to Los Alamos? This is CI specific for Los Alamos?
Yeah, right. Yeah, I’d known him probably for 15 years. So, I mean, I did not know anything about this case at that point. So I went to see him the next day, and he told me whom the individual was. I had never heard of Wen Ho Lee. I did not know him.
He’d worked at X Division, and he was a code person who worked on hydro—hydrodynamic codes. I knew a lot of people in X Division because of my career at Los Alamos. I mean, I knew probably a good half of the people who were in that division. I’d never heard of Wen Ho Lee, and so it was like who the heck is this guy?
Now, was that because he was pretty low on the totem pole?
I think so. I think so. Yeah, I think mostly—he didn’t—he never talked at meetings. I would go to meetings where X Division people would talk about the research going on in X Division. I never heard him talk once, and that’s a big deal, because most people there talk a lot [laugh] about their work—in classified areas.
So, anyway, our counterintelligence guy said, “This is coming from the DOE Office of Intelligence, from an individual named Notra Trulock.” Well, I happened to know Notra Trulock because he used to work for me when I was AD for defense research and applications.
One of the organizations I had at that time was a center for strategic studies. It was called CNSS, Center for National Security Studies. Notra Trulock was a Russian expert in that organization. He’s not a scientist in that sense. He’s a political scientist. He’s a Russian expert.
And Notra became a very unhappy camper under Sig for whatever reason, and he left. He stayed as a Los Alamos employee but became an assignee to DOE to the Office of Intelligence. Somewhere during that tenure as an assignee, he found out about some information that would indicate that somehow the nuclear information on the W88 warhead was compromised, and that the Chinese had stolen it.
And he was the one who was pushing this as his agenda within DOE. And he pushed it with Los Alamos. He pushed it with the intelligence community. He’s written a book about it, and I don’t know if you’ve ever read it. It’s—it goes into great detail with his arguments for why this was espionage.
But, anyway, I know Notra, so I say, “Well, I’d like to talk to Notra.” And this counterintelligence guy said, “Well, he’s coming to the lab in two or three weeks. Why don’t you sit down and talk to him?” So, anyway, I did, and he brought another fellow with him from the CIA, and they explained their arguments to me.
And I said, “Well, I need to see the information personally to understand why you’re saying it’s him, and why is”—and Notra’s first comment to me was, “It’s above your pay grade.” And I said, “What? You’re telling the Director of Los Alamos”—
—“National Laboratory it’s above his pay grade to not understand there’s a spy in my laboratory?” Well, he backed down. He did that, “Well, well, well,” he said, “but you have to come back to Washington where I can show it to you in a SCIF.” And I think you know what a SCIF is.
So I said, “OK, I’ll come back to Washington,” and so on. Well, I did that, and I saw the data and there was enough suspicious stuff there that I had to admit that it needed investigation…it ought to be investigated and explored.
Was he allowed to continue on with his work during the investigation?
Here’s the real kicker. I did obviously go and talk to the Albuquerque FBI local area office, and I asked them that question. “If this a problem, why don’t we take him out of the security area?” And the answer was, “No, we don’t want to alert him because we don’t have enough evidence. We don’t know if this is real or not,”
I got the impression that the FBI at that point had this as very low priority—very low priority. They were really interested in catching drug lords coming through New Mexico. And this thing was sort of on the back burner—I think they had one person working on it part-time, and not one of their top agents. And they said, “You have to keep this person in this job.” And so I wasn’t very happy, but nobody told me that there was anything different that we could do.
So this continued on for many months. I kept asking questions, “What’s going on with this case?” We kept pushing—and my counterintelligence guy would push the FBI. And I went back and talked to high levels in the bureau, I mean, all the way up to the senior leadership. And I never got very satisfactory answers.
And I didn’t think most of them thought it was as serious a case as the DOE, Notra Trulock felt it was. It wasn’t they were ignoring it. I just never got the feeling like the FBI was all over this, like you’d expect with a Klaus Fuchs case, right?
Yeah, I mean, we’re talking nuclear espionage. This is a big deal.
Right. Yeah, well, at that point, we didn’t know what had happened, except it was all innuendo. It was there’s a piece of information here, there’s a piece of information there. We can connect these dots. Wen Ho Lee has been to China many times, which is true. We knew that.
Did we catch him in any falsehoods at that point? Not really. I mean, there were some discrepancies which we didn’t understand, etc. But at that point, we couldn’t prove anything. I wish at that point I had taken unilateral action but the Justice Department was precluding that—and I didn’t find out till much later that I could have done so.
The FBI told me this after the case was all over that we were referred to as the—now, see, I’ve used their terms correctly. It was like we were the “victim” agency in this. And as the “victim” agency, you have certain rights. But they never told us what those rights were.
What does “victim agency” mean? What is that, compromised?
Yeah, essentially compromised, yeah. One of the things that I could’ve done is I could’ve gone and searched his computer. They never said directly that we could do that. They said, “Stay away from him. Leave him alone. Don’t tip your hand,”. So all of that was all background information.
But we kept pushing them and pushing them. They finally tried to tap his phone, and were denied by the FISA Court because the FISA Court said there wasn’t enough clear-cut evidence to tap his phone. So we asked for more—“You’ve got to give us something to work on. This is an untenable situation.” So then they tried to run what’s called a false flag operation. You know what that is, right?
It must’ve been done really poorly because Wen Ho Lee smelled a rat right away, and walked away from all of it. But he never came to us and told us that he had been approached by a supposed “agent” of a foreign power, however, which is what any person with a security clearance is taught to do. If you’re ever approached, you go immediately to the counterintelligence office, and tell them everything you learned. And, that’s been drilled into us.
Of course. Well, he never did that, which was suspicious all by itself. So nothing really was happening until Bill Richardson became Secretary of Energy. And so Notra Trulock presented this to Richardson, and Richardson wanted to know, “Oh, is this real or not?” We said, “We have no way of knowing. [laugh] We can’t tell whether it’s real or not. There’s data. There’s innuendo. There’s suspicious behaviors.” So—
And it’s not just the binary. It’s not just is it real or not? It’s also, if it’s real, how bad is it?
Yeah, exactly. We had no way of knowing. So to Bill’s credit he said, “I want this off my plate. I want this resolved in the next three months or six months or something.” And that’s when they started doing the polygraphing of Wen Ho Lee.
And the first polygraph was not done by the FBI. It was done by the contractor for the DOE. It’s a security contractor who did it.. What we had done right before the polygraph…when we said we were going to polygraph him, we took his security badge away, and we took him out of X Division offices, and I felt much better about that. And we said, “You will not get your badge back, your access back until DOE says you’re clear.”
This was your call to take his badge away?
Well, it was joint with DOE. We talked to DOE and we and they agreed totally and wholeheartedly. We’ve wanted to do this for a long time. So, anyway, the contractor administered the polygraph and read the results, and they say, “He’s totally truthful about everything.” So we say, “OK, I guess that means he is cleared.”
Well, this happened right as the Christmas break was happening. We used to shut down from Christmas to New Year’s, the whole lab, mostly to save money. But, anyway, I said, “Let’s not give him his badge back yet.” We found out later, which we did not know, during the Christmas break, Wen Ho Lee tried to break back into X Division by following people, and piggybacking through the security system, and tried to delete his files.
But he was denied access to them. Meanwhile, while he’s on the outside in the unsecure area, he talks somebody into signing into a computer for him, a friend, saying, “Well, I can’t get to my things.” And he gets access, and downloads a bunch of other stuff, files. And we don’t know about this because he’s off the grid, right. He’s not logged in the system anymore.
And obviously the co-workers that he’s relying on to do this, they’re not clued in on what’s going on, so they don’t have any idea that they should be suspicious?
Exactly, exactly. How would they know, right? He’s just a friend. They know him. We’ll just let him use our unclassified computer. It’s not a big deal. Give him access.
So the FBI then took the results from this contractor, and reread the results in January. We haven’t let Wen Ho Lee back into X Division yet, which turned out to be a really good thing because when the FBI read them, they said they find that there’s justification that he was lying during this interview. And they said, “We’re going to retest him.”
Well, they tell Wen Ho Lee they’re going to retest him, and all of a sudden, he coughs up a lot of lies so that he can hopefully pass the test, right. He starts, “Well, I did do this, and I did do that, but I didn’t mean to do this or I didn’t mean to do that.” So they give him another test, but he flunks it miserably. I mean, he really fails [??] including—
And the contractor is not conducting this test? This is DOE itself now?
No, this is FBI. These are FBI polygraph testers.
It’s remarkable that the first test was given over to a contractor.
Well, we thought so too afterwards. At the time, I didn’t think about it because they did a lot of the lie detector tests for DOE anyway. He failed some of the really important questions.
“Have you ever discussed classified information with somebody outside the United States?” And he said, “No.” And there were several of those important security questions. I don’t want to go into detail. There were several of those type of questions that clearly gave us and them enough information that we fired him, and he was then indicted on 59 counts by Justice Department.
After he was fired, we no longer have this or any other restriction from the FBI either. And we sent in our computer forensics people, who are really good. Wen Ho Lee thought he had erased everything, all his tracks and everything.
Well, you know how good forensics people are, right? They were able to track back to the early ‘90s downloads of classified information that he then was putting onto unclassified systems. He was basically putting them onto tapes, and shifting tapes onto other places.
They also found a notebook that was printed in such fine detail. Every line was printed very finely. And it was information about downloaded files. For every file he downloaded, he had made a hard copy note of it. “This file contains this. It’s this long, etc.”
So you can imagine even though today, computer systems can store everything on a tiny little chip – solid state memory- , in those days, we had these high-density tapes which are about this big, and they could handle a lot of data. Well, what it showed was he had downloaded the entire US nuclear stockpile, the design information, the input data, the dimensions of every US nuclear warhead, and the code—source code for every nuclear design code.
I don’t want to go any further—you can read a lot about the details in many places. Eventually, he gets put into solitary confinement in chains as a flight risk because they thought he would go to China or somewhere else. I don’t know who made that decision, I really don’t.
But that made him a martyr in the eyes of a lot of Asian-American people in this country. And what happens during the trial is the Justice Department and the DOE are not going to reveal all the classified information in the public. But they have to if they want make their case. The judge says, “You have to reveal everything into the open.” And DOE and the Justice Department made the decision they’re not going to do that.
The Justice Dept did a plea deal down with Lee pleading guilty to one count of illegally downloading classified information, and the judge gives him time served as his penalty. The judge then apologizes to him for the poor treatment he received in jail. There were a lot of congressional hearings after this trying to figure out why did this judge apologize?
Because even all of the congressmen who were on either side of the fence those days said—they look at evidence and said, “This was a terrible security violation, whether or not he gave the information to China or somebody else. This was a terrible security violation, and it should’ve been punishable by jail. You don’t apologize to people who download classified information.” It was the worst security violation that I had seen in my 30 plus years at Livermore and Los Alamos.
So it was a frustrating time because at that time, the Asian-American community focused their anger on Los Alamos. We were the symbol; not the FBI, right. It was Los Alamos was the symbol. It was presumed that we treated Wen Ho Lee badly, even though, all we did was fire him for a security violation. The FBI and the Justice Dept were responsible for all the legal actions in his case.
Well, I spent two-plus years of my life going around the country talking to the Asian-American community, and there are a lot of Asian-American societies in our country filled with very outstanding and powerful men and women. And I went to their meetings, and took a lot of crap from them about what we personally did, and how we personally discriminated against Asian-Americans. I tried to convince them that was not the case. So it was a very, very difficult period.
Now, what was the impact on morale at Los Alamos?
Oh, horrible, absolutely horrible. And we were really worried about losing people. Some people left over it. They didn’t want to work there anymore. My deputy at that time was Bill Press, who I think you know Bill.
Bill and I had long talks about what are we going to do? So we did a couple of things. One was we created a fund with money that I took out of discretionary research money. I gave it to Bill, and said, “Bill, you go out in the lab, and find out who are we in danger of losing, people we don’t want to lose? And that money is for you to give them, research money to make them want to stay, convince them.”
So Bill spent a lot of time, and did a good job, a really good job convincing people that this is still going to be a great place to stay and do research. Second thing we did was we increased the postdoc program with a—
Ah, finally. [laugh]
We already had a pretty big postdoc program, but I allocated a whole bunch of additional money into what’s called the Director’s funded postdocs.
Well, this sounds like you’re making up for what happened at Livermore is what it sounds like.
[laugh] So that actually helped. A lot of people saw that as we still care about science, etc. The third thing I did was created something we called the Los Alamos Medal, which was a distinguished medal to honor the great leaders of our laboratory; not just management, but scientific leaders, people who made a difference, the highest honor we could give. I would like to give credit to Pete Miller for suggesting that idea to me based on his experience at UC Berkeley. And the first ones we gave were to Hans Bethe and Harold Agnew. That also sent a positive message to people.
And they’ve continued that, and it’s really now kind of engendered in their culture now. So we were fighting tooth and nail to figure out what are we going to do to get morale back up, because morale was really in the dumps, I mean, it was really terrible.
How concerned were you? Did you ever give thought to the idea that the problem was beyond one individual?
Yeah, but there was never any indication of that. He was a loner. We looked for that, and didn’t see much evidence beyond him. When he traveled, he always traveled alone or with his wife.
His wife was also under suspicion for a long term. She was an interesting character. She was not technical, but she tried to insert herself a lot into technical meetings, which we finally had to stop and move her into a different job because we felt that she was doing inappropriate things like trying to go to conferences. But whether she was trying to pick up information or not, that was never totally determined.
But the two of them were a pair when they’d go to China. They went quite often to China. And he did admit to talking to the Chinese nuclear weapons program scientists. And he even admitted to helping them with a problem. But we can’t say anything more than that because we don’t know.
Yeah. Now, John, the other—of course, the other big national security issue to talk about during your tenure as director of course is 9/11. And so how—in what ways did that really fundamentally change the mandate and the day-to-day, particularly with WMD research at Los Alamos?
Yeah, yeah, big deal, big deal. I was in Washington that day on 9/11, and I was over on Capitol Hill when the police tried to tell everybody to go in the subway. They said there was a plane heading toward the capitol. And I said to the guards and police, “The worst place you want to send people is into the subways.”
I was thinking of, the Aum Shinrikyo people in Japan who put in sarin gas into their subway. I said, “I’m going to walk back to the DOE Forrestal Building.” [laugh] And I did. And unfortunately, along the way, I could see the smoke coming from the Pentagon, and that was a really sad day.
Anyway, John Gordon was the head of the NNSA at the time. And I went up to see John, and we sat down and started to talk about what we need to do in case this is a broad attack; not just a one-day attack but a broad attack. And we talked about where the nuclear weapons storage was, the nuclear materials stored, etc. And we started to work. We put a plan together. Then John called in experts from each of the labs.
And I called back to the lab and put us up on the highest security alert and to, ensure all of our nuclear materials in particular and our fences were secure, etc. After that, a lot of our people and the other labs who worked in our nonproliferation program flew sensors on satellites and airplanes. And they actually wound up going up and looking at the plumes over New York City.
And some of the pictures you’ve seen of plumes coming out of the buildings and what’s in the plume, that was done with various sensors from the labs, all of the three weapons labs’ programs. The other thing our weapon designers got very heavily involved in was the analysis of potential improvised nuclear devices that a terrorist might be able to create. What kinds of things should we be worried about coming out of Al-Qaeda?
Or maybe Al-Qaeda steals something that they need to do something else. Something they could make it into an explosive device. So we had people working that problem really hard. We also had people working the anthrax problem because the bioscientists, understood how to kill anthrax. And I think they were the ones that suggested irradiating all the mail going into the Senate Office buildings.
So it did change us quite a bit. There was a period you may remember when Homeland Security was created that they were talking about taking one of the weapons labs, Livermore in particular, and making it a Homeland Security lab. Bruce Tarter was Livermore Director [laugh] at the time, and Bruce said, “Oh, my god, that isn’t going to work.” [laugh]
Both Paul Robinson at Sandia and I supported him in that. We said, “You really probably shouldn’t take a weapons lab and just transfer them …..we can all help in Homeland Security,” which is the way it turned out. We all had research programs to help.
The physical security also changed big-time at the laboratory. If you go to Los Alamos now, you can’t go up certain roads anymore as a citizen without going through a guard gate. You can’t get up to the ski hill in Los Alamos the same way you could when—pre-9/11. And it’s just totally changed how the security fences are configured. Trucks have to go through a security screening before they come up on the hill now. It’s very, very different; totally different from what it was pre-9/11.
Now you mentioned your work with the NNSA, you know, in the wake of 9/11. I’m curious what your reaction was to its creation. I’ve heard it said that, you know, it was entirely about Wen Ho Lee. And really that’s quite a bureaucratic overreaction to one individual in a case of espionage. I wonder what your response to that is. Does that smell right to you?
No, it was much more than Wen Ho Lee. I think there had been a long progression of DOE’s management of the laboratories changing in a way that made it unclear who was responsible for what. Under the AEC, it used to be government and contractor-operated—government saying, “Here’s what we want. You figure out how to do it and you send the product to us.”
And it worked well for many, many years. And it was a healthy relationship. We each knew each other’s job. It changed really a lot around the time when Admiral Watkins become Secretary of Energy, and he came in with this emphasis on safety, which is not bad. I mean, improving safety is a good thing.
But it became so bureaucratic, the number of regulations and rules and procedures that arose—you had checkers on checkers, and audit on audit, and everything became top heavy with bureaucracy to the point where the labs weren’t sure—were they responsible or was DOE responsible? And it created a lot of confusion in the system. And Congress picked up on that.
And Congress said part of the problem with Wen Ho Lee was nobody knew who was responsible for security. That came up in the hearings big-time. Is Browne responsible or is it the head of security in DOE? Who was responsible? Anyway, that blew up to the point where I think the Senate, in particular Domenici and some of his colleagues, felt that something had to change in this relationship—this GOCO relationship.
And he wanted to make it clear that within DOE, NNSA is responsible for everything that goes on at the weapons lab. What happened in reality was it stayed mixed. Some parts of DOE felt they had still had responsibility for parts of what we did, and NNSA felt they had responsibility—
And part of it is that NNSA was never a truly independent agency.
No, exactly, exactly, exactly. And if— if NNSA had been created like NSA, right, then they still would’ve been part of the Department of Defense. But they were an independent agency who were responsible for everything inside their mission area, right. You never hear DOD sticking their fingers in the middle of NSA on operations?
And I think that was the model that Domenici was looking for was an independent agency, even if it’s in part of DOE. But DOE—as a matter of fact, Bill Richardson didn’t want that. Bill Richardson wanted responsibility for the programs in NNSA.
So it got muddy. I mean, it just got murkier. It didn’t really improve anything, in my opinion. And the lab directors worked closely with John Gordon and his people to try to make it work. A lot of good people have led that organization now, and they’ve done a better job than we did in the beginning, I would say. But it’s still a little murky.
So, John, I have to ask, by the end of 2002, first of all, what’s your reaction to news reports that say you resigned under fire? Do you agree with that assessment? Is that a fair way of looking at the circumstances under which you left?
Yeah, I think it was—there was a lot of political pressure on the University of California about this. There was never any statement that anything my deputy, Joe Salgado, or I did that was illegal. We were, as you might imagine, put under the microscope every email we wrote, every report, every letter, every phone call. We were investigated by the DOE IG, the Congressional Oversight Committees, etc.
The main error we made, in my opinion, was firing the 2 whistleblowers, Walp and Doran. But at that time we didn’t know they were whistleblowers. We fired them on the basis of their performance. What the Secretary of Energy at the time, Spencer Abraham, said to the University of California was, “There’s too much pressure on me in Washington. You’ve got to make a change or I’m going to have to take the contract away from you.” That was the ultimate threat for UC: the Secretary of Energy had already asked another entity if they would step in and run Los Alamos. And the University of California clearly didn’t want that to happen.
It was ironic for me. About a month before I resigned, Dick Atkinson, who was the President of the University of California, said to me, “, John, we think you have done such a good job in your tenure as Director, we’ve decided that we’re not going to do the five-year review of your performance,” which is the way they typically do it for lab directors. He said, “We want you to continue on for the next 5 years or until you decide you don’t want to be Director.” And a month later, he calls me up and says, “The Secretary of Energy’s is telling me that I’ve got to make a change.”
So I look—
So this is whiplash for you? You did not see this coming?
No, no. No, I mean, I knew the Secretary of Energy wasn’t happy because I had talked to him about this. But it wasn’t clear to me that it had reached that point where he felt he had to take the contract away. We did have to fix our business systems but as I mentioned earlier, we were in the process of doing so. The whistleblowers made it seem like there was a much bigger problem than it really was. I also think that many political people were tired of Los Alamos being in the news for negative reasons. The straw that broke the camel’s back.
And I’ve talked to so many senior people in Washington about this [laugh] after the fact. They all said, “You know, we understand what you went through. [laugh] And you didn’t do anything wrong. You were in the hot seat, and you had to take what happened. It was just one of those situations.”
Kind of like—what’s the poor guy who went to his aircraft carrier recently [laugh] and said, “COVID-19 is killing off my sailors—I want to shut down my ship.” Capt. Crozier. Was that a real problem? Did he do anything really wrong? I don’t think so. But he got caught in the political windmills, right, and gets chewed up.
So, John, this begs the question then, I mean, in terms of the range of options that are available to you at this point, is one of them realistically to fight this, to say, “This is unacceptable. I’m not going to be the fall guy for this”? Or was that just simply not in the cards, and was perhaps part of the consideration that had you done that, that would’ve created—it would’ve damaged the lab far beyond you and the concern of your—over your own reputation?
Yeah, that was actually my thinking. And at my last talk to the laboratory, I essentially told them that. I said, “I knew there were things that were wrong or were broken. Were they like people said they were? No. Do I wish I could’ve fixed them faster? Yes.”
My biggest mistake was not injecting myself earlier into the situation because I think I could have defused it. But I was in the midst of the annual certification of the stockpile, so I left my staff to handle this problem. By the time I was deeply involved it was like bailing water out of boat with a hole in it.
But I thought when I looked at the whole picture, the worst thing that can happen is to put the lab continually through more scrutiny and more scrutiny and more scrutiny, because we’d been through so much over the last five years. We didn’t even talk about the fact that we lived through a wildfire in 2000, right, [laugh] just in the middle of my directorship. [laugh]
Right. [laugh] So this is just—I’m just asking for your personal opinion. But do you think that the threat to take away the contract, that was real?
Yeah, I do. There was a lot of support for that over 20 years in Congress. They thought UC was arrogant. A lot of congressmen thought UC was arrogant. And they probably are to some extent. I mean, UC’s a prestigious school and system, right? And sometimes they would stand up to the government and say, “No, we’re not going to do that.” To me that was their responsibility as part of a GOCO system.
And I actually thought they also did the right thing by standing up for some really important things during my tenure too. During the Comprehensive Test-Ban hearings, we were being pressured to change our testimony to Congress to say that we guaranteed stockpile stewardship without nuclear testing would work.
And I said, “I won’t say that.” I said, “I think it’s a good bet, and we’re confident that we can make it work. But we don’t have all the tools. We don’t have everything we need to say we can certify the stockpile without testing it indefinitely.” And they wanted us to say that, and we refused to say it.
And Richardson was so pissed at us that the university said, “No, you guys have the same academic freedom”—they called it intellectual freedom—“intellectual freedom to say what you believe is the right answer, even if it’s not the right political answer.” So I think there was pressure to remove UC—UC kept the contract when it was put out to bid in 2005, but you notice they didn’t keep it alone. They had to bring in first Bechtel Corporation and now they’ve brought in other contractors to work with them. So it’s a different system than it was. They’re not as deeply engaged as they were when they ran it alone.
Now did you have opportunity to do that handing over of the keys to your successor?
Well, yes and no. UC handed the keys over to Pete Nanos, who was a Navy Admiral who was on out staff. So I knew Pete really well. I had engaged Pete in a lot of our issues over the year before, so Pete was really up to speed. And he talked to me a couple of times during his first month or so about issues. So I felt he knew what he was getting into.
And so when you left, what were you looking to do next? I mean, obviously you felt cut off at the knees. You certainly weren’t ready to step down, absent external pressures, right?
No, I wasn’t.
So with all of this built-up momentum for the things that you had planned to do, how did you reorient yourself?
That was really hard. What I did do was go back to LANSCE, my research home before I became Director, and I asked the University, I said, “I want you to support me to go back to do research.” They said, “Yes, we’ll do that. We’ll continue doing that.”
So you were certainly not persona non grata, nothing like that?
No. Well, interesting—I didn’t think so, not inside the lab, and not to the UC leadership, not to Dick Atkinson or any of the people who worked for him. About three months, four months later, I got a call from one of the vice presidents in the university who said, “We need you to go on sabbatical from the laboratory.” And I said, “Well, I’m just starting a research program [laugh].”
“I’m going back into nuclear astrophysics [laugh] and I’ve got guys helping me, and we’re working on some ideas, and new detectors.”
You’re back in the saddle.
I’m back in the saddle, not quite as good as I was [laugh. But technology changes, and I had to relearn a lot of stuff. But I felt comfortable I could do it.
And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, we want you to go to one of the campuses for a couple of years.” And I said, “What do you mean, like?” “Well, UC Irvine, or UC Riverside.” “Go away.” I said, “Why do I need to go away?” He said, “Well, one of the UC Regents thinks you shouldn’t be here.”
And I said, “Why does that Regent think that”—because in his world, when you get rid of somebody, you get rid of them. In the UC world, they don’t do that either. UC does not. If they fire a chancellor, the chancellor goes off to another job, perhaps back to a professorship or a different administrative position.
So UC was really sheepish [laugh] about this because I don’t think they wanted me to have to go on sabbatical but they were being pressured by a particular Regent. And I didn’t even know this Regent. I mean, I knew a lot of the Regents but I did not know this Regent. But they made it very clear that I was going to have to go leave.
Well, our youngest daughter was a junior in high school. [laugh] And I did not want to have to pick her up several times and go to her senior year somewhere else, and then come back to Los Alamos. So my wife and I talked about this, and she said, “You know, you could go consult for anybody you wanted in this country.” [laugh]
She said, “If we’re going to leave Los Alamos, let’s just leave.” My response was, “You know, that may be the right thing to do. If they really don’t want me, I’ll just leave.” That’s when I went, and we left, and we moved and—
Where’d you move to?
We live in a town in Southwest Utah near Zion National Park [??] Utah.
Beautiful, beautiful country.
Yeah, it’s a wonderful place to live. And my wife and I like the outdoors, and we like to bike all over the place, and so it turned out to be fine. And you can go anywhere in the world from anywhere now, right. So if I was going to consult, I could consult anywhere by catching an airplane from Las Vegas or even a local regional airport.
Or just doing it over Zoom nowadays, right. [laugh]
[laugh] Or just do it over Zoom, yeah. So it’s worked out really fine for me- I stayed on a lot of national committees. I was on the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Advisory Committee for about six years. I was on POPA, the APS Panel on Public Affairs, and wrote what I thought was a really great paper with the AAAS and CSIS that got into the Obama transition team on nuclear weapons thinking in 2009.
I was also on the Board of the Hertz Foundation, which gives out graduate fellowships in science for 15 year. I’ve done advisory committees for many organizations. I still do them for Livermore and for Sandia and Los Alamos. I chair NIF’s management advisory committee. So there’s plenty of things to do intellectually to keep my mind active. That’s not been a problem. I was frustrated to leave the way I did, I’ll be very honest with you.
I wonder if you do get some satisfaction that in taking the decision not to fight it that you served Los Alamos well in the long-term in terms of where it could’ve gone versus where it actually did go after your tenure?
Yeah, I feel that way, I really do, yeah. I did not get embroiled in a year-long messy court battle or that kind of stuff. It just wasn’t worth it to me. And in retrospect, it was the right decision.
Well, John, you know, this has been absolutely phenomenal and, I mean, just a wealth of information, and you’re an amazing storyteller.
There’s just so much value to have here, so this is just really great. I want to ask one last question, forward-looking question, right, you know. Given your tenure at the national labs, both of them, and how you moved up in the ranks, and how you really have such a full picture both at the granular level doing the basic science all the way to the highest levels of having an understanding of what’s going on, you know, in policy in Washington, what do you see going forward as, you know, the direction that the national labs should be headed?
Because there’s always this ongoing narrative of national labs needing to reinvent themselves to keep up and to stay ahead of the curve, right. So what do you see as the most productive way forward for national labs to keep themselves relevant, and to be in the maximal service of the country?
Yeah, that’s a really good question, and I know a lot of them are thinking about that all of the time. And I think that they understand that their value is really the quality of the people they get, right. And most of them focus on maintaining quality, and letting the quality of the people kind of lead then toward where the exciting science and the applications might be, rather than to say, “Here’s this master plan, and we pick quantum computing” .
What I always found is when you have good people, those are the ones who come up with the ideas that actually lead to redirection of the laboratory toward the important problems. I would bet on people any time over any big national strategic Soviet plan [laugh] or whatever you want to call it. And I think the labs that have done the best have that done well, Of course lab leadership does have the job of culling the wheat from the chaff.
The labs have tended to have a few things that they really were good at, and then allow themselves to morph out from that, and take on other issues. Oak Ridge and Argonne, for example, in computing. You would’ve thought 30 years ago, Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia would’ve dominated, exascale computing, but they don’t, right. These other labs saw that as an opportunity - hey, we’re really good at this. It’s a science problem; it’s not just a weapons problem. And then we’re going to maintain that capability and build it.
And they’ve done a wonderful job on that, I think. And they now have to just look at what are the problems the country’s going to face 10, 15 years down the road, and what are we doing about it, to help look at that? And some of these are longer than 10 or 20 years. Yeah, one of the things I was really proud of was to fund some bright young guys back in the late ‘80s, when I was doing the defense research job, to do an experiment on quantum cryptography.
And that built into a research group at Los Alamos that allowed me 10 years later to form a quantum research institute at Los Alamos that’s still working today on quantum problems. Could you have predicted that? I couldn’t have predicted that. I bet on the people always. [laugh]
Yeah. Well, John, this has been a delight speaking with you. I’m looking at the clock now. I can’t believe that three hours have elapsed, so—
Well, I enjoyed it, David. You’re a good interviewer.
Yeah, excellent questions, and you keep things moving, and I appreciate having the opportunity to talk to you.
My pleasure, my pleasure.
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