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Interview of Michael Anastasio by David Zierler on June 18, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Michael Anastasio, Director Emeritus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Anastasio recounts his childhood in suburban Washington DC and he describes his early intellectual pursuits in math and science. He discusses his undergraduate experience at Johns Hopkins, where his original plan was to learn enough physics to teach it at the college level. He explains his decision to pursue a graduate degree at Stony Brook, where he worked under the direction of Tom Kuo in the nuclear theory group on the effective interaction in many body systems. Anastasio describes his postdoctoral research in Europe, where he worked on the meson exchange theory for the nuclear force. He discusses his year at Brooklyn College, and he describes that circumstances leading to his work at Livermore Lab. Anastasio recounts his work on nuclear weapons stockpile issues in the “B Division,” and how Cold War security policy affected the laboratory’s mission and focus. He explains his increasing responsibilities as a division leader and then associate director at Livermore, and he discusses his work as scientific advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Energy for Defense Programs. Anastasio explains the impact of September 11 at Livermore, and he describes his tenure as director, where he was focused on maintaining the long-term viability of the lab. He describes the circumstances surrounding his decision to become director of Los Alamos and he reflects on the differences and similarities of the challenges of this new position. At the end of the interview, Anastasio describes the ongoing relevance of the research at Los Alamos in both nuclear weapons and basic science.
OK. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is June 18th, 2020. I am delighted to be here with Dr. Michael Anastasio. Michael, thank you so much for being with me today.
All right, so to start, please tell me your most recent title and institutional affiliation.
My most recent title was as the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
And what year did you become emeritus?
I retired from that position in 2011.
And what kind of work have you been engaged in in the more recent years?
Well, I’ve been contributing to a number of advisory boards and oversight boards largely, a little bit of consulting—providing some help to give back to those who have enabled my own career, and trying to continue to serve the country.
When you say give back to people who have helped your career, in what ways are you referring?
Well, it’s—it’s mostly to the institutions. Being on government advisory boards is one example that I’ve done. And of course, it’s nice too because that helps me stay connected to what I spent a career doing. And even more importantly, I stay connected with people—all the colleagues that I’ve developed over the years—and that’s a way to stay involved. And, as I say, keep all the expertise I have developed, keep it available as needed. I also spend time to mentor the next generation of leaders at the laboratory, making my expertise and experience available.
Sure. Certainly. OK. So, let’s take it now all the way back to the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your parents. Where are they from?
Where were they originally from, born and raised? My mom was from Kansas, outside Hutchinson, Kansas— Plevna where she was born, and grew up on a farm during the depression. And my dad was from New Haven, Connecticut, and he grew up there.
Where did they meet?
Washington, D.C. They both made their way to Washington in the—around 1939—just before the war, World War II, and they met there.
What brought them both to Washington?
Well, fundamentally, my mom wanted to get off a farm, she had other aspirations. And of course, the federal government was expanding, and the war was coming, and I think she had a chance to—there were recruiters going around the country. And my dad, same thing, came for an opportunity. He had an uncle who was a little bit into politics in Connecticut, and helped get him a job as a policeman on Capitol Hill.
And basically said, “You’re going to make something out of your life. Get on the train tomorrow morning, and I got a job for you.”
How long did he stay with the—with Capitol Hill Police?
I’m not sure how long, but he went to night school, and got an accounting degree certificate—I’m not sure exactly—and ended up working for the federal government most of his career for Department of Agriculture. And he became, a pretty senior person in the Executive Service.
What was your mom’s first job when she got to Washington?
I think she was a secretary, but I don’t remember where she worked and…
Did she keep her career when she had a—was raising the family?
No, she was a stay-at-home mom, and had three boys. That’s always a challenge [laugh] and—but when I was probably in junior high, she went back to work part-time, so she usually—she could be around when I got home from school. And that’s how they put me through college.
And what neighborhood did you grow up in?
I was born in D.C., and when I started elementary school—I was the youngest. When I started elementary school, we moved out into the suburbs [laugh] just across the district line to southeast Maryland—Forest Heights, Maryland. And that’s where I grew up.
Public school throughout for you?
Public school throughout.
And at what point did you start to exhibit an interest in math and physics and science?
I’d always enjoyed math, and was good at it, evidently. I thought that was a lot of fun, probably a thing I enjoyed the most early in my education. I remember when I was, I don’t know, seventh or eighth grade, I had a good friend who was similarly inclined, and we got interested in algebra before we had a chance to take a class. So, we used to pass notes in class with algebra equations to solve, and kept our interest in perhaps a boring class of some other sort. And then I got broadened into being interested in science, reading Scientific American, that sort of thing, popular kinds of science. And that was the beginning. My friend had a sister, older sister, whose fiancé at the time was in college studying physics. And I remember the time I met him was over a holiday, and he had Feynman lectures that he was reading through. My friend and I, we decided physics was the right thing to do. I was thinking, look, if you’re interested in math, what kind of career is there? You could be an actuary for an insurance company—or you could be a physicist. Those were the two things I figured I could do.
You could also work as an economist at the Department of Agriculture, right?
Well, that wasn’t on my list at the time. And so, physics seemed interesting, and science seemed interesting and…
Did you have a good physics teacher at high school?
Good but not so inspirational, and that’s not what excited me to it.
So, when it was time to think about college, you were thinking specifically about physics programs at the beginning?
I was. That was my expectation going off to college, and that’s what I majored in.
And Hopkins was both an excellent physics program and not too far from home?
Not too far from home was not a big issue, but it had a good science program, but it was an important—it was an excellent, broad education kind of university. I got a Bachelor of Art, not a Bachelor of Science, as an example, right?
Yeah, and so—I went to visit, and I looked at other places. But I don’t know, I liked the place, and it seemed right.
Who were some of the professors at Hopkins that you became close with?
Oh, boy. [laugh] Now that was a long time ago. [laugh]
Let’s see. I’m having trouble. I don’t remember names right now.
Did you know during your undergraduate years if you wanted to focus on theory or experimentation?
Not really. I was pretty naive about research. And, I don’t know, I had some part-time jobs measuring bubble chamber tracks and [laugh] things like that, which were not too inspiring, but, earned you a little pocket money. But, no, I didn’t have a good feel for what research really was in that sense, and so, no, I didn’t have any specific plan. And, in fact, I must say when I thought about going to graduate school, my thinking was more that I wanted to teach college physics. That was the goal that I had in my mind. It wasn’t so much a passion for research that drove me. It was to pursue that.
So, by teaching, when you were thinking about graduate programs, you were thinking because you wanted to be qualified to teach physics at a college level?
Exactly. And so, if you wanted a—at least my sense was if I wanted to be able to teach in a university setting, then I needed a PhD, I should go to graduate school.
So, no concrete plans to be a future national lab director? That wasn’t on your radar at the time?
I’d say if I’d had made a list of things of my career aspirations, that would’ve been nowhere to be seen.
[laugh] Funny how life works like that.
Oh, my gosh, in so many ways.
So why Stony Brook? How did that come about?
I don’t know, same sort of thing. I looked around, pursued a number of opportunities. They were—they had attracted some very good people to the department, and it felt comfortable. When I visited and talked to faculty, it really seemed like they were—one thing that was important to them, in addition to you getting a good education was they wanted you to be successful. Some of the other places I explored, it seemed more cutthroat and more competitive, more—amongst the students. And it was like, I’d been in that kind of environment for a long time as a—as a student. And that seemed more appealing to go to a place where they were going to help make sure I got through.
Now I hate to put you on the spot again but I have to ask what professors at Stony Brook did you become close with?
Well, certainly my thesis advisor, Tom Kuo, and then the head of the group I was in, Gerry Brown, and a little bit Andy Jackson, who left a couple years after I got there. There were Van Nieuwenhuizen, and Dan Freedman—taught field theory. So, yeah, there were good faculty there that I enjoyed. And then, students, some visiting faculty, and it was a pretty active place.
What was the research group you joined? What were they doing?
It was a nuclear theory group, and they covered a pretty broad spectrum. Gerry, who was the head of the group, had a pretty strong reputation, and he had a very, very broad interest in physics. And he was also part of the Institute of Theoretical Physics that Yang led, C. N. Yang, and he was into many different things like many body problems, chiral invariant theories, and neutron stars. But he was bringing a lot of these other kinds of physics ideas into nuclear theory, and using them to attack some of those problems. In my last year as a graduate student, I got a—he and I did a paper together that was very valuable for my career, not just in a career sense but also the interaction with him and kind of the growth in the experience I had working with him, with somebody with so much broad knowledge. It was a good experience for me.
Was it during graduate school that your career aspirations changed?
No. I still was thinking that teaching physics at the university level was what I wanted to do. But it was clear that to do that, you needed a PhD. To get a PhD, you need to do research, right, and to build a reputation as somebody that someone wants to hire, you have to do research. And so, I kind of was on that path, and of course I continued doing that for a number of years after I graduated.
How did you connect with Tom as your thesis advisor? How did that play out?
That was interesting. The other thing I was interested in was astrophysics, what kind of universe are we in—where’d the universe come from? That’s—that was fascinating. And I actually spent a summer working with Mike Simon there in the department, on a problem for a summer to see what that was like, if I might want to pursue that for a thesis. That didn’t work out for me. It was—I don’t know. Astrophysics was a little too open-ended for me. [laugh] That is to say, how do you expect the shock waves to propagate through the intergalactic medium when you don’t know the density of the medium? I was struggling with that concept. Why do you think there is—even is a shock? The other thing that really interested me was the nucleon-nucleon interaction. And I learned about meson exchange as an explanation for the nuclear force. And, I don’t know, that really intrigued me, and something I wanted—that was another interest I had, that drew me to look around at the nuclear theory group. Andy Jackson was somebody that was really working on that specifically at the time, and I talked with him, but he was already planning to leave the—in a year or so. So that didn’t make any sense. And actually he’d suggested—he actually introduced the idea of maybe I do a joint experimental theory thesis, do some kind of experiment, and then do the theoretical work to analyze it. But, talking with the experimentalists I’d kind of realized if I went into a laboratory, the right thing for me to do is to keep my hands in my pockets. I didn’t feel like I was really facile in that kind of an environment. So, I talked to some more people, including Tom, and was intrigued by that, and that worked out.
What was your dissertation on? What did you work on?
I worked on the effective interaction in many-body systems. Can you understand how a many-nucleon system behaves starting from the fundamental nuclear force? And now imagine you have lead where you have 208 nucleons? And so how do you do all the—how do you calculate how a nucleus behaves? And there are a number of theoretical approaches to that. And in the end, they’re all some kind of an effective interaction. So how do you take the fundamental two-body interaction, transform it to an effective interaction that works in a limited subset of the Hilbert space where you want to apply it to? You don’t really calculate all 200—or take oxygen-18. You don’t calculate all 18 nucleons. But you think of the 16 as a closed, inert shell, with two valence nucleons. And then what effective interaction operating in a truncated Hilbert space can reproduce a subset of the results of the nucleon-nucleon interaction in the full Hilbert space? What’s a more fundamental approach than the typical phenomenological models?
And you had fun with it?
I enjoyed that. And, in fact, if you look at the fundamental science I did in my career, it was largely around various aspects of that. For my thesis, I looked especially at convergence properties. An energy independent theory leads to an expansion of energy dependence—will it converge or how do you group terms so that you can make them converge faster, etc.? Actually when I took my thesis out, I looked at the physics that I did more than 40 years ago—
—and that I haven’t spent any time on since, is a little bit of a challenge. And then with Gerry we looked at an excited state in lead, the emission from one of the excited states was hard to explain at the time. And using some of Gerry’s ideas, we looked at some of the fundamental properties of the basic nucleon interaction—what properties would it have to have to explain the particular transition state that was recently discovered in lead? And after graduation I was looking at using various formulations of the basic nucleon-nucleon interaction, embedded in a many-body system—how well are we actually be able to reproduce the properties of the many-body system? So, again, effective interactions.
Were you looking specifically to go to Europe? Was that a great opportunity for you, or did that just sort of become available and that’s what you wanted to do?
It became available. Gerry had spent quite a bit of his early career at NORDITA in Copenhagen. And had a lot of connections in Europe—there were constantly visiting faculty for the year or for the summer who came through the group over the years I was there. And that led to an opportunity to go overseas. I must say I was conflicted because I think like just most every time in history, jobs in physics were not plentiful at the time. Is this a good thing for me or not? I had heard stories of people who go off overseas, and they disappear from view, it’s really hard to get back involved—so, I went and talked to Gerry about that. [laugh] He said something on the order—the way I remember it is, well, as a young scientist he went off to Europe. And when he came back, he was a full professor at Princeton.
[laugh] No problem. [laugh]
That was his—the way I interpreted what he said was, “Hey, …if you’re good enough, it doesn’t matter. And if you’re not good enough, it doesn’t matter.”
Although it’s a very different job market that he was coming from than what you were looking at.
Of course, and it always is. But, anyway, I went for it, and it was a great experience.
Did you feel connected with physics in America, or did you not even feel the need to be connected while you were in Europe?
I certainly kept up with what was going on in the journals of physics around the things that I was doing, and attended some meetings/conferences in Europe. And of course, I was on this cycle of looking for jobs all the time because I was in a temporary position at that point of my career.
Now, was it one postdoc that was split over two institutions, or it was two separate postdocs?
Well, my experience in Europe started when I was a graduate student, Tom Kuo actually went on a sabbatical, and I went with him, spending a year in Norway with him, then came back. And when I came back, that was the year I spent working with Gerry. I went off to Europe again, and spent three years—two in Germany, and one in France—in two different positions.
Just to familiarize the readership, in terms of the system of postdocs there, were you free to pursue the projects that you wanted to, or would you join existing research endeavors and help out on them?
When I was in Germany—I can’t answer that in a general sense. But my own experience was that in Germany, I joined a group to advance the work they were doing. My experience in France was more the other, where “what do you want to work on?” and talk around to people and find somebody to collaborate with. And so, it was a little bit different.
But overall, it was a good experience at both places?
Oh, absolutely. It was a good physics experience, but it was a good—I think it made a real difference in my long-term career too, experiencing other cultures, living in different environments, learning how different people behave and think. I was fascinated to watch how physics is—how much the way physics is done is culturally dependent. Certainly the way physics was done in France or Germany was different than I saw when I was at Stony Brook how they approach a problem. A help for my long-term career.
And could you get by in English, or you had to pick up German and French, or how did that work out in terms of communicating with people?
Well, in Norway of course, they spoke English better than I did.
[laugh] In Germany, which is where I went next, we did everything in English because they were—just very anxious to perfect their English. Although they still were writing some papers in German for the German journals, by and large they wanted to publish in the US journals and in English. I did a lot of paper editing for them.
So, you couldn’t speak German with them even if you wanted to?
Actually, I could. At work, I spoke English. But in a social environment, when I had the chance to go to a party or something like that, or meet somebody my wife had met, and I did more of that in German.
When were you married?
I was married just before I went to graduate school, when I graduated college. Her—our first child was born in Germany. Ann had had German in high school, she was our family expert on German.
But, you know, during the delivery, that kind of faded away pretty quickly.
I had to deal with the—gosh, the midwife. I was trying to remember the English word. [laugh] I had to deal with her in German, because she wasn’t speaking English and my wife wasn’t speaking anything.
But, I learned a bit of German. That was—I could talk to somebody at a party for few minutes. That was about it. As we traveled around, did a lot of traveling, and people really appreciated it if you tried to speak their language. That was great. France was more difficult. In France, if I was one-on-one with somebody, we’d speak English. But if another French speaker came up, we switched to French. And in Germany in the institute I was in, when there was a lecture given, it was always in English, though in France it could be in French. And that was—but I’d had French in high school and in college. [laugh] That’s one thing about Johns Hopkins is my Bachelor of Arts—
There you go.
—To get a degree in physics, I had to take a language exam—
—from a physicist.
I don’t know. There’s a—one of the classic physics textbooks was by Messiah, Quantum Mechanics. So, when I went in to take my exam, I sat down and he pulled out the book. And he opened it up, and just picked some random chapter. And he said, “Well, start translating this for me,” he had the French version. And that was quite an experience to try to do that. And we actually got stuck there. I got stuck, and I just couldn’t figure it out—very long sentences with many clauses. He was getting disappointed in me, so he went and looked, and he couldn’t quite figure it out. We went and got the English translation out, and how did the translator do it? And we said, “Oh, is that what that means?” So, he didn’t have perfect French either, perhaps that’s why I passed.
Michael, you mentioned the value of sort of getting the broader view during your time in Europe about physics. I’m curious, in theoretical nuclear physics, what were some of the biggest topics generally in the field during those years? What were the most important or impactful questions that people were asking, and generally what was your role in these issues?
Well, again, I was largely in the nuclear world and I was really largely focused around the meson exchange theory for the nuclear force and applying it to the many nucleon problem, but the quark model has—was coming into play. I mean, quarks were already on the scene. And we were discovering the new—the J/psi particle was discovered at the time. The whole expansion of elementary particles and how do you bring all that together, and the quark model? Then people were starting to see how do I bring that into nuclear physics itself, into a nuclear many-body problem? Quantum chromodynamics was just—I don’t know—just starting to happen. People were starting—supersymmetry was a hot topic for elementary particles at Stony Brook. The standard model of elementary particles was already on the scene, and how do you go beyond that, and the getting more—incorporating gravity? So, it was a very vital time, exciting.
Did you ever play around with the idea of staying in Europe, or the plan was always to come back home?
No, my plan was always to come back home. I always felt off-center, you know, in a personal sense. We really enjoyed our time there. But we felt—still felt a little like outsiders. It was good to come home.
So, chicken or the egg question, was it the job opportunity that brought you home, or was your—did your postdoc end, and you came home when you were looking for your next opportunity?
It was more the latter. I didn’t want to spend my career in Europe, and my wife didn’t want to spend her life in Europe, so we were looking to come home. And after my year in France, that’s what we did, went to Brooklyn College.
Was there—were you thinking at that point still that pursuing a teaching job at the college level, that was still the plan? That’s what you wanted to do?
That was still the long-term plan. But, it was—
Had you done any teaching in Europe, or it was all research?
No, all research. So it’s a little strange. My career aspiration was to be a college professor, and teach. And then—
Ironically, by the time you start at Brooklyn, you were all research with very little teaching.
Exactly, because, I had the belief that the only way to become a—on a faculty at a university was to have a research reputation. And although that’s not totally true—wanting to do that, we needed to come back. So, where’s my next opportunity?
How was that year at Brooklyn College? Was it good?
It was great. Well, professionally it was great, very productive. And I thought that was a time we did—where in hindsight I think most interesting work I did in the fundamental science arena. But that was when New York City was bankrupt, and we were living in the big city, something my wife had not experienced before. And we had a young—a 1-year-old or 1-and-a-half-year-old. A challenge for my wife in a big city environment where there’s so many people and so forth. Ann didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did.
So, you were kind of happy that it turned out to be a short-term prospect at Brooklyn?
I kind of knew that it was—going in, it was a visiting position. And I had hopes that maybe they could turn it into something longer term, but that didn’t happen. But work was good, and that was great.
And then at some point comes the big moment that changes everything—
—Livermore. How did that play out?
Fascinating. Well, we’re back in the States for—I’d been in Germany two years. And after a year, I just started looking for the next job because in your second year it’s—it’ll be time to move on. Then as soon as I got to France, I had to start looking for a job because I was only going to be there a year. Every year, you’re off looking for a job. And that was wearing. I started looking for more faculty opportunities, and interviewed around a number of places. Also, since I had a visiting faculty job at Brooklyn, I actually got to see what it’s like to be a faculty member and…
A real view; not a romanticized graduate student view?
Yes, absolutely, you said that nicely. It made it easier for me.
The dream kind of vision I had, got modified by the reality, and the whole idea wasn’t quite so appealing. I was looking at other kinds of opportunities too. And I ended up having a—I went out to an APS conference in Berkeley that fall and met some people from Livermore there who were recruiting. Also one of my colleagues at Brooklyn, Carl Shakin, he had spent quite a number of summers working out at Livermore. It ended up turning into a job offer. That was the big decision. Am I ready for such a change?
Had you gained any more insight on the national laboratories and what they did over the course of your later years in graduate school or as a postdoc, or this was still sort of unchartered territory for you?
Unchartered, unchartered. I mean, I’d heard of Los Alamos. I barely knew of Lawrence Livermore. But I didn’t know much about the lab.
Had you been on Livermore’s campus before you actually got the job, or your first time there was as a candidate?
The only time I’d been there was part of the recruitment process.
So, what—how did that process play out? How were they recruiting?
Paul Brown, one of the physicists at the APS meeting, was one of the recruiters, and he and I had an extended conversation, and they were looking for people. It was an interesting time because they had not been hiring for, oh, quite a number of years. We communicated a few times, and I sent in an application just to see what would happen, and in the end, got a job offer. The other thing that was going on of course with a young family, I wanted to settle down, and certainly my wife very much wanted to settle down.
Not in Brooklyn, if possible?
For her, yes—although we made some good friends there that we still keep in touch with. But I didn’t—moving every year, learning a new language every year, that was getting old, and it was time to—that was one of the attractions of going to Livermore.
I’ll test your memory again.
And the salary was very attractive.
Do you remember your first title at Livermore?
I was classified as physicist—my formal job title in the payroll system.
What were your initial impressions as you got settled in at Livermore?
Well, the first thing that happens is you’ve got to have a clearance, which I did not have. So, you go off to the cooler—
—where you cool your heels waiting for your clearance to show up.
And yours probably took a little longer than most because you were in Europe for three years?
Probably, but it didn’t seem to have a big effect.
Oh, that’s good.
I had to wait about six months— the process started before the time I showed up, that probably took nine months or so to get my clearance, which was pretty typical. But, on the other hand, I got a chance to finish up writing papers. I sat with the nuclear theory people at the lab, and was in the kind of environment I was more used to, and finished up writing some papers, and closing out some work I hadn’t finished yet. But not really knowing what I was going to be doing.
So, it was only after you got the clearance that you joined the B Division?
Yes, correct—totally new experience when you get to go sit with them, and find out what’s really going on, and what the heck this job really this.
What is the B in B Division, and what are some of the big projects that they’re involved in?
The B is B. I mean, it’s a B. It’s a letter.
There is A—
As in there’s the A Division, the B Division, the C Division?
Yes, and Z—all the way to Z. I mean, not every letter but, divisions were—historically were all just single letter. And again, classification? It’s—you don’t want to advertise who’s who and what’s going on. And B Division is—was a—a physics design division—a physics organization that did weapon design of primaries, the primary of a nuclear weapon.
This was the—right in the middle of the Reagan build up. The group I was in was heavily involved in developing and getting into the stockpile a number of weapon systems —a very, very, very busy time.
And very well-funded also.
I guess. But I was ignorant of such things at the time. We were a small team—this was 1981, using a computer that was significantly less powerful than your iPhone, that was the supercomputer? Yes, well funded in one sense, but a group of five people putting three weapons into the stockpile.
And so—and the tools were pretty simplistic compared to what’s available today.
Sure. Michael, did the feel of the lab, did it have a military feel to it? Did you feel like it was another academic physics kind of environment?
Neither. It was an applied physics environment, which was different than the academic environment I was used to. And it was—we’re doing design physics, R&D, but we’re not doing fundamental research, that was done in other parts of the lab. That is to say, how do you take the physics we know, and how do you apply it in a way to get the job done? And it was very goal-oriented. It was a—it’s a real change in how you approached your job. It wasn’t—hmm. As research physicists, how do I take the techniques I know, and find the problem I can solve using those techniques, expanding my repertoire in doing that, pursuing some thread of discovery and innovation? When I got to Livermore, it was more you have a goal— a project. There’s a timeline. There’s a financial constraint. And you have something to accomplish. You do the things you need to do to get the goal done, as opposed to, gee, I don’t understand everything about this issue, and I better go down the rabbit hole and figure that out. There’s no time or ability to do that. It is how do you find the right science that is essential, and bring it together to accomplish the goal. How do I have a good feel for what is—when do I know enough that I can move on as opposed to keep exploring?
I’m curious if you had a sense of where the lab was in the communication process? In other words, what are the issues that bring this research to your lab, and then the findings that are achieved in your lab, where do they go from there? Where does the lab fit in that overall process?
Well, the government establishes policy, Congress the funds, and DOE the mission direction for each site. I didn’t have a good sense of that at the time. I did understand what we were doing, and in the sense of the deterrent strategy for the country, and that nuclear weapons played a role in that, and that we were off developing nuclear weapons to go into the US stockpile. I was lucky that I was—the head of the group I was in was probably the premier designer in the field in the—probably in the world—certainly in the country. So, he was heavily involved with the key people across the enterprise, and was a great person to learn from. In that sense, I had I think a little better opportunity to have a broader perspective of what we were doing.
Are you able to talk about your work for the boost physics project?
Yes, a little bit. Modern primaries are boosted. You take high explosive energy, turn it into nuclear energy by imploding the fissile material making it supercritical, and then you use the—then you have a way to use fusion initiated by the fissioning material to boost the fission process, to enhance the fission process— complicated coupled, nonlinear phenomena. So how do you have models that represent how such a weapon performs? Especially with the capabilities we had available at the time. We developed models for our simulation tools representing how these different pieces of physics worked together—necessarily empirical models. And how could we make them less empirical and more predictive? And that’s what I was working on. And as our tools expanded, a simple example was—when I started there, most of our modeling of performance was done in the one-dimensional code—one spatial dimension. When I came, we were just exploring nuclear performance in more than one dimension. Of course nothing’s one-dimension, so how did that affect your models? How much of the model was representing the fact that you were only in one dimension as opposed to a real three-dimensional device? Also, as our computing capability allowed, what fundamental physics should be improved to more consistently predict the nuclear performance?
Now, when you were named group leader in 1988, did that mean—were you still engaged in the research but just at a managerial level?
Leadership level. I’m sorry, I always make a distinction between management and leadership. But—
What’s so important about the distinction, in your mind?
For many scientists I know, management is a bad word that you’re just—you’re a bureaucrat. You manage salaries and you manage careers, which is only part of being a technical leader. And so being a leader, you have to have some manage…you have some management responsibilities. But it always was important to me that somebody had to be more than a manager to be a leader.
That they had both vision and a capacity to mentor younger colleagues?
Yes, and that’s a longer conversation we can have. In any case the group was a small group, you know, four or five people to lead. I was still doing my own work as well as guiding and suggesting and leading the others in the group.
Now, smack in the middle of this, a major thing happens. The Soviet Union collapses.
Not quite yet. That was after I became a division leader.
Right, that was ’88. And shortly after, I mean, the Berlin Wall falls in ’89.
Yes, but we were still moving forward until we went into the moratorium—testing moratorium and stopping weapon development, in 1992.
Yeah, so that’s my question. When did these massive geopolitical changes start to affect, you know, your day-to-day?
Yeah, that was the big one. There had been previous periods in our history questioning the future—do we need further testing, further R&D? But then when the testing moratorium and the canceling of weapon development programs happened in the very early ’90s, that was the big change because now it wasn’t talk, it was real. The whole funding profile changed, and the direction of—what’s the lab’s future role— all that came into play.
So, what—how did some of those debates play out? I mean, to the extent—how existential were they? Were people talking about, you know, not needing this kind of research anymore just because the Soviet Union doesn’t exist?
Yes. And there was even period of—do we need two physics labs, both Livermore and Los Alamos? And we had the Galvin Commission, the budget started going down precipitously, a push in Congress that the budget should be redirected to technology transfer. The government had paid for a lot of capabilities in these institutions. They thought, let’s start spreading it out to benefit industry—and then we should—that should be the focus of the lab, or we could be this or we could be that. And we had groups going on, meeting inside the lab, trying to invent a future and a new mission for ourselves. A lot of angst was running through the system. In the ’94 time frame, if you looked at the budget, and just extrapolate the budget trend, probably in about four or five years, our budget would’ve been zero. That was the kind of anxiety that was running through the system. What’s going to happen next?
At least in the short term, was that anxiety justified in terms of the budget?
Justified? How do—what do you mean by justified?
I mean that were people’s worst fears realized?
Were people’s worst fears realized about where—what the budget actually was?
Oh, yeah, the budget was falling quite significantly year by year. We developed new organizations to work on tech transfer, and some of the weapons organizations actually started focusing on tech transfer as opposed to weapons. There was real change going on, for sure. More activity in nonproliferation was becoming a bigger focus for the lab, and we started organizing—John Nuckolls created an organization to look more broadly at those issues. So, yeah, the lab was just starting to change its character. But nobody quite knew how they individually were going to fit into all that, and would they still have a job. So institutional anxiety but also individual anxiety.
And I assume there were reductions in force to go along with the budget cuts?
I don’t think so, not formally.
We were just not hiring. We were attriting, but able to—there was a lot of money to be saved by not going to the Nevada Test Site, and nuclear testing, that was a big cost reduction. There were people associated with that that were no longer needed. But we didn’t—yeah, we didn’t have a formal reduction of force. I think perhaps the other labs did, but I don’t remember.
Now, your role as scientific advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Energy for Defense Programs, how did that opportunity come about?
Well, this was Vic Reis who had come over from the Defense Department, and he became the head of—Defense Programs in DOE for all the weapons activities. …when did I go to Washington?
’95, yeah. So maybe ’93, ’94 when he came. And he really reached out to make connection with the labs, and he started something called the Science Council. He had one scientist from each of the three labs who came and spent a tour back there. In ‘95 my bosses at the lab said, “Hey, Mike, why don’t you go be on Vic’s Science Council?” I don’t know exactly how that happened. All I know is somebody—I got to go see the boss, and they told me that this was a great opportunity. [laugh]
And what was—how did that work administratively? Did you take a leave of absence from Livermore, or it was more like a detail in D.C.?
Yes, it was a detail in D.C., I was still a lab employee—you could keep your affiliation and remain paid by the home organization, but you’re there working. It was a propitious time and an opportunity for me because of what was going on. At the time there was a lot of discussion within the Clinton administration—should we go to a more restrictive testing treaty, including consideration of going to zero? We were in a moratorium. Should we negotiate a lower limit on the threshold of testing? It was at 150 kilotons. Should we bring that down or should we go to zero? One of the things I did with Vic was to start a process to explore from a technical perspective what are the pros and cons of different threshold levels? If you came down from 150, are there break points where all of sudden something you used to be able to explore, you couldn’t do anymore? And where are those break points, and can you technically articulate the pros and cons of each of those levels, and work with the other labs to kind of establish that? I had a lot of meetings in the Pentagon, and with the JASON, with lots of other advisory groups, trying to discuss this and put a briefing together that could articulate how that looked, and get some technical agreement that this really is an accurate representation of our ideas and thinking at the time. I was the one that had to lead to put all that together, which was kind of exciting. Subsequently, there was a big meeting that happened in Omaha. Vic Reis is the one that orchestrated a lot of this. It was called the Confidence Conference, and the commander there hosted it. The secretary of energy at the time, Secretary O’Leary, attended. The lab directors were there, all the key players from the Pentagon, etc., etc. And there were a series of briefings—I don’t know—four or five briefings. And I gave one of them covering the study that I’d done, with—together, and it was our consensus briefing. That was quite an experience to brief all these highfalutin people, and I was still pretty much a middle-level leader in the lab. And that was interesting. I was told what a good briefing it was, and invariably it was for different reasons. It was like, “That was a good briefing because you supported my position that we should go to zero.” Or, “You supported my position that we shouldn’t go to zero.”
So I’ll ask you, Michael, the same kind of question I asked about the B group with the communication progress. Did you have a sense of where your work—like who was the client of your work? Was this ultimately headed to the secretary of energy? Was it headed to the White House? Who were the clients?
Well, it was the Secretary, the laboratory directors, and the senior military officers who would be advising the White House and the President. Ultimately, Vic Reis—as it came down to decision time, there was one more round of engagement. I was chosen to go with Vic and the deputy secretary of energy, Charlie Curtis, and the three lab directors, where I was the briefer of the chairman of the joint chiefs. Then we went into the White House, the Situation Room, and where I briefed the national security advisor as kind of the final step. We had culled it down to a four or five chart briefing, and then I sat back to listen to the conversation among the principals, which was fascinating, just fascinating. Again, great part of my education, and what a great opportunity to be involved in such consequential decisions. These the principals who were going to personally talk to the President of the United States about the decision he was going to make for the country, and I was the one person that’s giving a brief.
I take it that was a pretty exciting experience for you.
Did you love it so much—
We could talk a long time about it, but that’s OK.
[laugh] Did you get bitten by the Washington bug? Did you think maybe this is where you wanted to take your career more towards policy in D.C.?
Not really policy so much. I always thought of myself as a technical person, and—it’s the realization that the laboratories were trusted advisors to the senior members of the government, whether it’s Congress or the administration. And if you can be a trusted advisor, you can actually impact national decisions—decisions that the President of the United States makes or that Congress makes. To do that, in the process of being that advisor, you have to be able to communicate with the people you’re advising who are certainly not technical experts and build that trust. So how do you do that? And ultimately, in hindsight, I realized that that was my opportunity to be a teacher.
No, seriously, I mean, in a sense I ended up having my teaching career. It was just to a different—it wasn’t to a bunch of undergraduates—
—and graduate students, rather government officials.
[laugh] That’s amazing.
Was the detail only designed to be one year?
No, it was about four months. All of this happened in four months.
What an exciting time.
Was this a special assignment, or had Livermore—was there a rotation of people who—?
It was a rotation of people. And then the other thing we did in those four months, we—we had this Stockpile Stewardship Program that was getting off the ground, and we had to write a report for Congress describing it. I got to write a big part of the first report to Congress that defined what Stockpile Stewardship was— what are the elements, and what are the capabilities that were needed, and how would we use them, and how would this all give confidence in a deterrent that we’re no longer testing?
Right, right. So, my next question is when you head back to Livermore, are you named associate director right away, or that comes a little bit after?
No, I come back to my original job as B Division leader, and I was in that job for some months. At that point the associate director went off to a new assignment. That’s when I became the associate director.
Now you emphasize, you know, as the group leader that this was mid-level. Was that a big leap? Did you leapfrog to become associate director, or in the org chart is that sort of next in line?
No. I started off as a physicist, then a group leader, then B division leader, then an associate director. That was the ladder of hierarchy. I went straight up through that hierarchy which was not typical, I guess, but it worked really well for me. So, where was the big leap? I was kind of ready for that, becoming an associate director, just because of all the experiences I had, including the ones we just talked about, to be able to see the bigger picture. And as far as leadership goes, it was just a matter of scaling up from being a division leader. It was the same character of work, and just more of it with bigger impacts.
And was your sense that those heavy four months in D.C., did that sort of supercharge everything for you?
Supercharge it? It certainly prepared me, I mean, made me feel—because as an associate director, a lot of what you do is interface with the government around the direction of the program. And you’re—for Livermore you’re the main face for those issues, including administration and Congress. I had had all this experience now that made me a little bit more ready for those engagements.
How many associate directors were there at Livermore?
Eight? I don’t know.
Oh, it’s big? A lot—it’s a lot of associate directors?
Well, I don’t know if that’s a lot or a few.
You know, it was a pretty big place, one and a half, two billion dollar budget every year with roughly 7000 employees. Each associate director has a distinct portfolio of responsibility.
Sure, sure. So, what is defense and nuclear technologies? What is that area? What are you charged with in terms of being associate director of that?
That’s the whole nuclear weapons program, and by and large, including all the weapon physics and design, all the weapon engineering, all the weapon development and testing, all the weapon maintenance. How do you maintain the weapons that are in the stockpile?
So, this was a logical trajectory from the B Division?
Yes. About two-thirds of the funding in a laboratory was coming through this program that I led. And also funding the fundamental science activities that supported the weapons program.
And what was the budgetary environment in the second half of the ’90s? Had things gotten better from those earlier anxious years?
Yes, somewhat. We had begun to implement the Stockpile Stewardship Program that was established to mitigate the cessation of nuclear testing and retain confidence. That was one of the safeguards the President established when he signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. There were six of them. An additional one of them was an annual assessment process. Every year the director of each of the labs would independently write a letter that went to the President and went to Congress assessing the need to return to nuclear testing. Is there any technical need to return to nuclear testing at this time?
What would be a good technical reason to return to nuclear testing?
Well—again, to be simple—is there a weapon type in the stockpile that I can’t have confidence in anymore unless we do a nuclear test to resolve a technical issue. I mean, weapons age, a weapon is not inert. It’s made of materials that are not fully compatible with each other. In the short term, those are—they’re designed in a way that it shouldn’t be a problem. But in the long term, they can. And maybe we would need to recommend a nuclear test to have confidence. Another reason could be if the government wants a different kind of weapon than what we have, and we don’t have enough experience in our history to be confident putting this in the stockpile.
Sure. That’s very helpful. Michael, this might be a difficult question to sort of quantify. But obviously, you know, before this—the end of the Soviet Union, part of nuclear weapons testing and management is, you know—it exists on the basis that nuclear war is a distinct possibility, right? After the end of the Soviet Union, does that more or less go away? Is there no longer the assumption that the United States maintains a nuclear stockpile because it might need to resort to them? And if so, how does that affect your day-to-day?
Well, I would phrase it differently. I would not say we have nuclear weapons because we might go to war with them. Nuclear weapons really are a deterrent to prevent war. And the intent is never to use them in anger. But they are used every day as a deterrent on the behaviors of others who might be adversaries—
Right. So that’s a good way—
So, to answer your question, even though the Cold War was over, the Soviet—or the Russian Federation still had a lot of nuclear weapons, and so did we. And—at the time, we hoped that the tensions would ease, and we would have a more friendly relationship. But they still had nuclear weapons, and certainly the geopolitical conditions could change as we have seen in recent years. Others would like them to all go away, but there was certainly an element in the government and in the—in the country that wanted to retain them for their deterrent value. But we were out of the business of doing development of additional weapons.
So, the deterrent value of nuclear weapons, as far as you saw it, essentially remained the same from the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia? That was the same level of value, the same importance, to American defense posture?
Well, I would say in our defense posture, it became less central. We were entering in a world where—terrorism was more of an issue. There were other threats and challenges in the world. So, it was less paramount than it had been in the Cold War. But its value hadn’t gone away. Maybe in a relative sense, it was reduced, but still there. And that—and the laboratory still had the charge to maintain confidence in that deterrent—in technical confidence in that deterrent.
Now, you mentioned terrorism, so I’m curious when you’re named deputy director for strategic operations, is that before September 11th?
Yes, I would say it was just before.
Did defense and nuclear technologies, did that remain in your portfolio as a matter of leadership and oversight?
Yes, oversight. And I was still nominally the spokesperson in Washington for that. But I didn’t do the day-to-day running of the activity, but had final say about how budgets were done. I also was running the operational part of the lab, the support part, the safety and security, HR, and business, and all that came under my purview as well.
Did September 11th change things at Livermore? Did you feel that change?
Sure. It’s interesting because—with the Cold War ending in the early ’90s, one of the things that the lab did, and I give John Nuckolls a lot of credit for this, was to explore what will be the threats of the future? One of the things that’s important for the laboratory is to be able to anticipate the future. If we’re going to be supporting the country’s national security needs, you don’t want to wait ‘til after the fact to start working on it. And I always used the simple—if the President of the United States calls up the lab director and says, “Well, I need you to do the following” you don’t want to have to say, “I’ll get back to you in three years after I set up, develop the tools and the technology, and do the R&D to help.” That’s not very useful. So how do you anticipate the future? The lab did a lot of soul-searching about what future threats to the country might be. And one of the ones the lab picked was terrorism. Consequently, in the early ’90s, 10 years before 9/11, the lab started to spend resources to develop technology and insight and organization to prepare for a terrorism threat. When 9/11 happened, the lab had already a lot to offer to respond, and actually we had—I think I got this story right. We had a group at the lab who had technology that could penetrate through buildings that could detect people breathing, not one of its original applications, a micro-impulse radar technology. And they actually—Washington actually got them on a special flight back to New York where they were walking around the debris, trying to see if there were any people that could be found. Did that change the lab? Absolutely. Clearly the government’s focus changed, and the lab was ready to respond, and did. It also changed in another way, which was recruitment changed dramatically. There were—all of us experienced that in our own different ways, but—the country felt vulnerable in a way it hadn’t before. And there were a lot of people who wanted to do something about that, people who were unlikely to come the lab to work on the nuclear weapons program were anxious to come and work on counterterrorism.
Michael, if the answer is simply “no comment”, I will of course understand. But when you talk about assessing or anticipating future threats, that certainly sounds like intelligence operations to me. I’m curious if Livermore—if there’s such a thing as an intelligence component to Livermore, or at least a relationship between—with national labs and US intelligence agencies to partner on developing ways to assess new threats?
There is an intelligence element of all three of the national security labs—they are formally, legally part of the intelligence community and…
Does that go back to 1947, do you know? When does that designation happen?
That goes back a long, long time, way before I became part of the lab. Certainly at Los Alamos they were tasked right after WWII to look for what the Germans had been up to? Did they have a nuclear weapons program? Los Alamos then participated with the Atomic Energy Commission who was tasked to provide specialized analysis of the nascent atomic weapons program of the Soviet Union. I don’t recall when the labs were designated to have a formal role with the intelligence community, which is now a significant activity at the labs.
Did you have any idea that the directorship would come so quickly after just a short—a relatively short amount of time as deputy director?
Well, certainly I had no insight that I was going to become the director.
Was there a culture of promoting within, even at the director level?
Absolutely, and — I forgot what the question was now. [laugh]
Just were you surprised at—?
Oh, was I expecting lab director? No. But Bruce Tarter was well into his tenure as director and—
Did you work closely with him as deputy director?
Did you work closely with Bruce as deputy director?
Yes, very much, as I had as an associate director. As deputy, it gave me more insight into how the lab worked and the demands on the director.
So when you were offered the position as director, you know, you’re at the lab for 22 years in many different roles, did you feel like you had a pretty comprehensive understanding of everything that was going on at Livermore, or there was even still more to learn because you were responsible for everything as director?
Well, certainly the latter. I mean being responsible for everything is very different. And there was much to learn about the rest of the lab—there are cultures within the culture. There were parts of the lab I hadn’t worked in, so how did it all fit together. In fact, that was one of the first things I did is—I had a meeting—kind of a lunchtime brown bag kind of meeting in which we gathered a sampling of people from an organization, secretaries, scientists, a mix of everybody. And we’d sit down, and we’d chat about whatever they wanted to talk about.
So is that to say, Michael, that—
I went around the whole lab doing that.
Is that to say that you didn’t come in with a specific mandate before you went on that listening tour? You didn’t know how you wanted to direct until you figured out what was going on and what people were feeling all around the lab?
Well, at some level, yes, I did. I had a sense of what I thought the future should be like, and where the lab would be going, and what would it take to do things, but how do we get there? So, the listening tour was more to get a sense of where the people were, and what they were thinking, and then how the different organizations worked. I had only worked in this one stovepipe of the laboratory, the nuclear weapons part, which was a big part of the lab but still…
It’s still a stovepipe, a big stovepipe, but still a stovepipe.
Well, I didn’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It was just, these people hadn’t met me before. And it was a chance for me to sit down with them and say, “Here I am,” and the chance for them to get to know me a little bit. I always told them, “We can talk about anything you want. This is for you.” And it was always very revealing, and it was also a way for them to see how I responded, and to get a personal feel for you as a leader and as a person.
So, what were some of the big-picture takeaways you got from this listening tour about what was going on at the lab as a whole?
One of the things was they were very happy to see me, there was this sense that they were feeling less connected and unsure of where we were going. Everybody’s always anxious about change. And you’re the new leader. How’s that going to affect me personally? Just a broad spectrum of things that were on their minds.
Michael, was your leadership style that when people would ask questions about the direction of the lab, would you answer in real time, or would you take those kinds of questions under advisement, and then communicate your answers sort of more generally and broadly? Would you engage in a dialogue during those listening tours?
It was very much a dialogue. That was the whole point. People would ask a question, and I would answer it, right there on the spot.
So, on that question of “where is the lab headed?”, what were the most effective answers you could give at that time?
Oh, it was the obvious things. This is what’s going on in the world, and this is our—these are the priorities in Washington, this is our mission. They were worried about whether there was going to be a major shift of some sort that was going to affect them personally or the organization they’re in—how do they fit in? They’re looking reassurance that just because I’m the new director doesn’t mean their life is going change radically. Also, more internal issues. What is my attitude on pay and performance, and how do you manage this? Are we going to—are you going to continue to support diversity groups?
What do you see as some of your key achievements as director at Livermore?
[laugh] When I thought about that job, I—my whole expectation was that that would be my last job. What could be a better job than that? I’ll go until my time’s up, and then I’ll retire. But to answer your question, the budget grew during my tenure and I was able to move the lab to work more collaboratively around the big issues that faced us. Two of our—well, two main institutional priorities were the National Ignition Facility and computing. We installed two supercomputers, BlueGene/L and ASC purple, the first to reach 100TeraFlop, and also achieved first light at the NIF, demonstrating that this huge laser really worked. Programmatically, we completed the refurbishment of the W87—this was a first under the Stockpile Stewardship Program. And we deployed BASIS, a bio-pathogen detection system, at key locations around the country. We also won 17 R&D 100 awards—one external validation of LLNL’s technical excellence.
Did you feel like your tenure as lab director at Livermore had sort of come to a natural conclusion, or the transfer, the switch to Los Alamos was a new opportunity that compelled you to move before you were ready?
There was a—it was not the natural conclusion. There were more things to do—one of my disappointments at Livermore was that I saw something I hoped to make happen—it was around biology. The labs have a significant set of capabilities around biology. And I’d really—and this was back in the early 2000s. It was really pretty clear to me that biology was going to go through a major change—biologists were developing further collaborations using the new scientific and engineering tools that were becoming available, allowing more detailed, fundamental insight. I thought the lab—we had some good biology people—and we also had the other sciences. And if we could take the advances in engineering, science and computing, in collaboration with biology, a major revolution was going to happen. Could the lab be at the center of that revolution? I tried, but didn’t succeed. I couldn’t find the right leadership who had the same vision I did that wanted to come to the lab to make that happen.
It was mostly a recruitment issue?
I thought so. I mean, I’m not sure I’m right. But certainly—
Well, what else could it be?
Oh, I was full of—I didn’t know what I was talking about. [laugh]
Clearly, there is an ongoing revolution in biology. But it could be that there wasn’t any chance that the Livermore lab ever could be a significant player, no matter who I recruited. That’s another possibility. But, c’est la vie. I was not ready to retire. As far as I could tell, they weren’t ready to fire me. It wasn’t the natural conclusion to my career at Livermore.
So how did Los Alamos come about?
Well, it’s a well-known that there was a sequence of events that were happening at Los Alamos that were frustrating and embarrassing to the government—they were frustrated in how the lab responded to the issues. So they decided they wanted to compete the contract—the management and oversight contract that had been held by the University of California since WWII. But, a big decision for the university was, did they want to be part of that competition? Likely in an academic-industry partnership. Long story short, the university decided, yes, they wanted to participate, and they needed somebody to lead that effort to propose as the Los Alamos director. The university—the president of the university came to me, and basically twisted my arm to lead the bid for that. And to the surprise of just about everybody, we won that competition. OK, I’m going to Los Alamos. [laugh]
I can’t imagine this was an easy decision for you to accept. Things are going well at Livermore, and Los Alamos is like—I mean, one response would be you wouldn’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.
Yep, exactly. I certainly was aware of much of what was going on at Los Alamos. I made a number of phone calls for advice from people around the country that I’d known. And, pretty—I would say 100% of them said, “Don’t do this.”
You must’ve appreciated what a tremendous vote of confidence this was in your leadership that you were considered to be the person that could take on this incredibly difficult position.
I guess. I wasn’t thinking that way at the time. Rather should I do this, and why would I do it? In the end, I really was taken by the importance of having the University of California involved. The University fostered scientific freedom where the lab staff was…not only free to but encouraged to say what they thought was true technically. I thought the best way to preserve that kind of open dialogue about science was to keep the UC involved. I thought it would be bad for the country if Los Alamos lost that. And the country needed Los Alamos to be successful.
Why would it be bad for the country? In what way?
We needed two labs. The labs are very different entities technically, even though their missions look very much the same. Los Alamos and Livermore traditionally came at the technical problems very differently. And that’s always been an important element of our national security—and that was even more important now in a world where you couldn’t do the integrated nuclear tests. Can there be trust in the technical advice of an organization that can’t get that proof positive of whether they’re right or not? One good way is to have that competition of ideas of two different organizations. And I thought, especially in a world where we’re not going to be testing, having the two institutions involved was really important for the country to have.
That’s interesting, because you mentioned earlier, you know, existential questions after the Cold War, do we really need two national security laboratories? And it seems like the answer ironically as you were thinking about these issues was post-Cold War, yes, even more so in fact.
Yes. I believe that. The question back when I said that was an existential issue was does anybody else believe it? [laugh] Vic Reis, the leader in the DOE at the time, certainly believed that, and that is how he approached the whole Stockpile Stewardship Program—way he designed that, and convinced Congress. But, I needed—the country needed them to be—both labs needed to be effective and healthy and of the character I thought that was important.
Did you do the same thing? Did you go on the listening tour right away when you got to Los Alamos?
Yes, I did, but the issues that came up were very different. As I said, and I think it’s probably quite well-known, the two labs are pretty competitive with each other. Some people would say, “We fought the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but the enemy was Livermore.”
[laugh] That’s great.
Or you’re at Livermore, you’d say the enemy was Los Alamos. So now imagine you’re at an institution with that kind of culture, and not only do you get a new director, it’s somebody from outside the lab. And not only that, it’s the director of that other institution, right? And I dropped from the sky—
And this is on top of all of the anxiety relating to Wen Ho Lee, and the accounting issues, and everything else?
Well, just the anxiety of being beat up constantly by the outside world about how terrible a place they are, and how frustrated everybody is with them. And some feared that I was going to come to Los Alamos, where I would do what I could to weaken the lab, and then two years later I’d go back and become the director at Livermore again.
You appreciated this sentiment at the time, that going in this is what people were thinking?
Well, most people didn’t know what to think. And, frankly, some years later, people that I got to know pretty well were able to tell me, “You know, it sure didn’t seem like you wanted to be here either.” And that was partly true—I’d thought I would be at Livermore and then, retire, and go off into the sunset. So now I walk into this challenging—where all advice to me was, “Hey, you’re staking your whole reputation on this, you can’t possibly succeed.”
How clearly did you want to dispel those notions that you were there on a mission of destruction, only to go back to Livermore?
I certainly was aware that people would be very skeptical of me, and who is this person? Why should we pay attention to him? And so how do you establish yourself? I had no network of connections throughout Los Alamos. I did at Livermore. Here I just dropped from the sky. I’ve had no cadre of connectivity that I was used to. Who do I listen to? Who do I take advice from? And…
On that note, Michael, did you bring people with you from Livermore?
Yes. Three people came with me as part of the leadership team. And of course some at Livermore were unhappy for having taken people away—but, that’s another story. [laugh] It’s one thing to consider why would I go? But honestly, why would they go?
That’s another story —how you convince somebody to do that.
So, Michael, between what you were learning about Los Alamos from afar, and by the time you sort of got yourself settled in, and were talking to people and listening to perspectives, what did you perceive as some of the major challenges that lay before you?
Well, first help to rebuild self-confidence as an institution. Also, I had believed coming in that one of the challenges that Los Alamos faced, and one of perhaps the root causes of some of the events that were happening, was the spans of control. In the leadership structure at the lab, some of the people had way too many people that they were responsible for. The organizations were too big. I tried to restructure all that, and of course I broke some glass, a big change for people. Some people felt they were losing—I don’t know—stature or status. But the other thing that I didn’t have a good sense of was—Los Alamos was Oppenheimer’s lab. Livermore was Lawrence’s lab. Los Alamos in many aspects of its culture is like a university. And so the structure of the lab, and the mindset of the scientists, is very more individualistic, it’s like a professor in a physics department at a university. They’re off doing their own research—the department doesn’t have team research projects. Livermore’s culture really grew out of Lawrence. For Lawrence to accomplish building the accelerators that he was famous for, he needed a team. He needed not only a physicist, but he needed an engineer, a chemist, etc. That was the culture that got embedded in Livermore. At Los Alamos, I really felt a need to try to build a more cohesive team-focused institution without losing the strength of individual science. And I didn’t realize how significant an issue that was until I got there.
Was your sense that Los Alamos had experienced similar levels of change after September 11th in terms of being involved in counterterrorism?
Sure. If you mean how they responded to the change in mission focus? Certainly, they went through anxiety also. What will our future be? But with some difference. Livermore was always second. Los Alamos had a certain self-image of, we’re first. Our science is the best. If anything happens, we’ll still be here—
As for the increased emphasis on counterterrorism or supporting the intelligence community, the institutional focus really depended on relationships you already had and also what are your technical strengths? And so that was different in itself.
Now, for those people who thought, you know, you were there to take Los Alamos down, and then to go back to Livermore, when did you turn a corner, if ever, with those people, in terms of being able to communicate that your intentions were not that?
It’s hard to tell—about a year or two? When they saw what I was off doing…
And I was going to say actions are stronger than words. So, what kinds of things were you doing that—?
Words don’t mean much, it’s about actions, and it’s about results. One of the things I communicated is how we had changed the perceptions in Washington, whether I went to the administration, DOE, DOD, or went to Congress. At first, I would say 98% of my conversations in Washington were about, “Oh, my god, is there any hope for Los Alamos?” They had lost confidence—not fully justified, but that was the mood. I would say after a year, with the way the lab had performed I was able to communicate and change their perception. Then, we started getting much better funding, and the government was much more willing to invest in Los Alamos, and we’re hiring, and it was a vibrant set of activities going on.
I wonder, Michael, if one particular challenge was, on the one hand, you want to make sure that there isn’t another Wen Ho Lee on your watch, and you want to improve security protocols to ensure that there isn’t? But on the other, you want to improve security protocols without making perfectly loyal and hardworking, you know, employees not feel like they’re being—you know, that people feel suspiciously towards them? That must’ve been a real challenge.
Yes, and it was not only security, it was safety, business operations. It was all those things, where the actions of a few can impact the reputation of the entire lab. It was also that, don’t forget, we’re an academic-industry partnership. So another big challenge is convincing the lab that we’re not going to become a—like industry, and that they’re not going to take over. And how do you manage that? That was a whole learning process itself. All the dynamics are going on at the same time.
Right. So much of our discussion with Los Alamos has been sort of retroactive in the sense that these were legacy issues that you were dealing with. So, I’m curious at what point did you start focusing more fully on what you wanted to see in terms of Los Alamos’s future? How you wanted to plan to make Los Alamos better and stronger than you had left it, looking forward?
Of course, I’d been doing that concurrently and from the beginning, there are certain elements of the lab I was trying to revitalize. I had a vision on where the lab should go and the character of some of the organizations that I thought needed improvement. For that, some of the people I brought with me were there to help focus on that change. We had some success at that, and really made improvements in some of those organizations. And, as I said, many elements in the lab were growing, and the government was forgetting that for a time they had lost confidence in the lab. I thought that was one of our big accomplishments. Although, you know, in my first year, we had a big kerfuffle again. We had a security infraction that received a lot of publicity. I had a special opportunity to testify in front of Congress three times—
—[laugh] about why they shouldn’t shut Los Alamos down.
[laugh] Was your sense that the spotlight—
If it happened a year or two later, that could’ve been my time to go. I think people cut me some slack.
Was your sense that the spotlight was brighter because of the recent history with security incidents at Los Alamos?
Yes, when I went to testify, the committee had a chart, and it was a list of all the security—all the hearings they had had about security infractions at Los Alamos historically—12 of them, if I remember correctly. One of the key questions I got was, “Well, we’ve had your predecessors come in here, and they said that they were going to fix this. But look at this chart, why don’t we just shut you down? Why should we believe you when those guys didn’t succeed?” That was a big deal, but—we got past it, and that was good. In spite of this we had quite a bit of success in our science programs, our national security programs at the lab. And some of the changes I was working on I thought we made real progress on. Although I would say in hindsight, I’m a little disappointed that some of the changes that I thought we had embedded didn’t last—changing cultures is hard.
So, what specifically were you hoping would stay beyond your tenure?
Oh, I mean, the cultural things, about more careful—about safety and security, as an example, those are things that get lots of publicity. Another thing worth noting is one of the biggest surprises I had coming to Los Alamos is what an icon the lab is—their national reputation. It’s different in a way that I had to experience personally— anything good that happens there gets amplified, and anything bad that happens there gets amplified in a way that doesn’t happen elsewhere.
Why do you think that is? Just the legend of Los Alamos?
I think that’s a big part of it. And it just—
—I think that’s a big part of it. Los Alamos is world-renowned so you get a lot of attention. In addition, Los Alamos is the… a major element of the economy of Northern New Mexico. The whole nature of how the lab interacts with its community, locally, regionally and state-wide, is very different from Livermore. Of course, Los Alamos was carved out of the middle of four different pueblos. Part of my job as the lab director was caring for all these relationships, —
—adding many different dimensions to the job that I had at Livermore. It was—that’s another element of being the icon. The lab is an icon in the state as well.
Now you made clear that when you left Livermore, it was certainly not because you felt like your job was done. By 2011, had you—did you have that sense that you were—you accomplished what you came to do?
When I talked to my leadership team, I told them, somebody’s going to tell you when your time’s as lab director is done. I’d been a lab director between Livermore and Los Alamos for nine years. I was the ninth director at Livermore, the ninth director at Los Alamos, and I’m tired of waiting to be told my time was up. [laugh]
I was—the job of the lab director changed a lot over the nine years I was a lab director. And the frustration dealing with the bureaucracy in Washington had been exponentiating. I was trying to reverse that but could not make it happen.
You think it was achievable, but just beyond your abilities?
I was just so frustrated in dealing with the government bureaucracy— it was time for maybe somebody who wasn’t so attached to the past, who could be more effective if they could let that go, and focus more on the future. That was a big part of it. But now I get to be part of the oversight.
So, I’m back at it again. [laugh]
So, frustrations aside, what were you really satisfied with? What do you feel like you left in place that really made a difference, both in terms of repairing what had happened, and in terms of putting Los Alamos on solid footing, and looking toward the future?
I think I really instilled a better sense of Los Alamos as a cohesive whole, and got the institution to work better with itself, and to take on—for the big issues that are the institutional challenges, to respond with a much more integrated holistic view of the future without losing the essence of what the lab was. I thought that was the most important thing. As for some specific accomplishments—well, in response to heightened expectations from Washington for our weapons programs, we re-established the capability to manufacture war reserve pits for the W88 warhead, delivered the first W76-1 life-extended warhead to the Navy and made essential contributions in support of the intelligence community and non-proliferation. We commissioned the Roadrunner supercomputer, which was the first to break the petascale barrier and also garnered 23 R&D 100 awards. We began the much-needed revitalization of the Laboratory’s infrastructure, some of which dated from the 1950s. Of course the credit goes to everyone at the lab. Examples that have currency right now—Bette Korber has dedicated much of her career to the quest of finding a solution to AIDS. Due to her deep scientific insight into the virus there is a vaccine in human testing right now. It’s things like that that come out of Los Alamos.
Currently, there’s a rover on the Mars, Curiosity—one of its key instruments is the ChemCam. Roger Wiens leads a team that developed that instrument for NASA—it uses a laser to analyze the chemical make-up of rocks there, providing clues on the planet’s past habitability. An improved version, SuperCam, was just launched with Perseverance—on its way to Mars right now. And remarkable things happen with the intelligence community that I can’t talk about at all.
[laugh] Yeah. I think that these examples make clear that in spite of my personal frustrations, these were exciting times for the workforce—Los Alamos has continued to thrive.
Well, Michael, we—at the beginning of the talk, we already covered some of your work in more recent years. I think for the last part of our conversation, I want to ask you a sort of broadly retrospective question, and then a forward-looking question based on your experiences. So, first, I was intrigued about, you know, your emphasis on leadership, and how that difference—that’s different from being a manager. And I’m curious if your background in physics, and the way that physics—physicists think and approach the world, if that in turn influenced your leadership style, how you learned to be a leader, how you learned to analyze situations, analyze people, come up with solutions? Did you see physics as sort of fundamental to how you saw the world, and operated as a leader in these national laboratories?
Yes, to some extent, absolutely. In some other ways, not at all. But for the former, when I first started getting into more senior leadership positions, where I’d given up my technical work, what I discovered about myself is that I really like solving problems. I realized that it might be a problem of social dynamics or strategic thinking or effective implementation, but it’s still a problem. My training in physics served me well, to clearly pose the problem and then think through possible solutions and test them. And the other answer is no— wow, nowhere in my training, my education did I get any help understanding how to deal with social dynamics.
That’s kind of the antithesis of the canonical picture of a scientist. A big challenge was how do you engage and communicate and lead? Always when I hired somebody into a senior position, I said, “You’ll know you’re a leader when you see people following you. You’re not a leader because you have a title. You’re a leader when people follow you.” We’ve got maybe a few thousand PhDs at Los Alamos. It’s probably a detriment to have a title—
—again, how do you lead? I didn’t get any of that training. Now I think I alluded to this earlier, my time spending overseas helped me with that—how to engage other people with different backgrounds and perspective. As an example as a director, how to interact with Congress and have them believe in you and trust in you and look to you for their—for technical advice on issues they’re struggling with? That’s a whole dynamic I had to learn how to do. Things I certainly didn’t get any training in.
Well, Michael, for my last question, it’s a forward-looking question, and it’s, you know, with the perspective of your long career in national security laboratories, and specifically as director of two of them, and with regard to the fact that you remain involved with oversight. So, what do you see as the future of national security laboratories? You emphasized before the importance of assessing future threats, of being ahead of the curve. So, without getting into detail of a sensitivity nature, what are the ways in which the, you know, national security laboratories can remain relevant and can play as positive and productive role in continuing to secure the—our nation’s security?
Well, these laboratories are national security labs. Will the labs be relevant in the future, I think’s your question. My answer is, yes, they will be in many dimensions. We’re learning as a nation how to confront a multipolar world, a multipolar world of nuclear weapon states. We have two of the important adversaries, Russia and China, who have been for over a decade very actively modernizing, expanding and extending their nuclear weapons capabilities. It’s not a static world in that sense—what deterrence posture do we need to be in in a world like that? And there’s proliferation—how do we and the global community manage that? Pakistan and North Korea went through a lot of effort in spite of international restrictions and controls to prevent them from doing it. And yet they succeeded anyway. Then you switch to additional important aspects of national security—say the global climate. I certainly feel very worried about climate change and about the future the world faces. The labs are very heavily involved in the research to understand the climate. A number of the major climate models used internationally are being developed at the labs. And beyond just what’s the average temperature or sea level change—what’s it mean regionally, for example, to the southwestern United States? Can we start making climate predictions about regional impacts instead of the Earth on average? I worry also about biological weapons. We see what a pandemic can do, what would a bio-weapon do and how could we deal with it? More broadly, what could be the next technological breakthrough and what would that mean? The future is full of opportunities and challenges.
And it’s so clear that the labs are front and center to all of these issues.
Absolutely, one of the beauties is—I would say 90% of the science the lab does is unclassified. It’s the application of a small part of the science we do that actually becomes classified. Imagine, in an over simplified example, a satellite in space to study the origin of the universe with a bunch of sensors on it. Now you can take that satellite, and turn it around 180 degrees, and have it look down at the Earth. Now it’s a surveillance satellite. And it could be looking to understand the climate, or it could be looking at other classified national security issues. The same scientists and engineers who are doing—building the same sensor, and it has all these multiple applications. And that’s what the labs are about, that what makes them so special. Advance fundamental science, use it to develop a new application with national impact, then carry all the way to a prototype? There aren’t any institutions in this country anymore that do that, except these national labs.
Yes, the labs are a tremendous and unique national resource.
Michael, it’s been a pleasure talking with you today. I really want to thank you for spending the time with me.
You bet, my pleasure.