"LANL Employees are a famously noble and successful group, with the exception of those hired after about 1955."
--LANL: The Real Story
Much of the common knowledge about Los Alamos National Laboratory revolves around its intimate connection with the Manhattan Project. Richard P. Feynman and J. Robert Oppenheimer come to mind. However, that was the lab in the 1940s; it retains a strong connection to the United States' nuclear arsenal, but it has diversified. The LANL of today is not the same as it was back then.
It's larger than it looks...
LANL is big. It has at least 13,500 employees, most of whom are scientists and engineers. The lab's property covers around 43 square miles of mesas and canyons in and around Los Alamos, New Mexico. Employees reside either in Los Alamos or the nearby towns of White Rock, Espanola, and Santa Fe. The lab is geographically divided into at least 47 technical areas, of varying security level. All of these numbers are different depending on who you ask, and being that LANL is the primary weapons lab for the United States, there are likely secret areas, which award a 1000 point bonus to anyone who finds them. The bonus comes with a free helicopter ride out of the area, followed by a nasty interrogation.
LANL is partitioned into divisions, represented by acronyms.
- T - Theoretical Division. As their name implies, they are doing research for its own sake. It focuses mostly into physics and mathematics, and contains biology facilities as well. Lately, they have applied their vast supercomputing power into computational biology puzzles, such as modelling disease spreading and ribosome functioning on an atomic level.
- NMT - Nuclear Materials Technology, where I worked as a database coder. NMT is a leviathan of a division, and handles all of the practical aspects of nuclear weapons. Materials are shipped in, plutonium cores for weapons are constructed, and the waste goes out.
- X - Applied Physics Division. Officially, these people try to work out which of our old nukes are going stale. That is, they attempt to predict the effects of aging on our sizable nuclear stockpile. This proves quite tricky, given that several international treaties prohibit direct testing. However. The one person I met from X Division was actually an architect of new weapons. I questioned whether she felt it was a morally acceptable line of work, and she replied, "It doesn't really bother me. I work with so many friendly and interesting people, and I enjoy what I do."
- P - Physics Division. They play around with lasers quite a bit, and make high-tech toys for the military with them. Other research includes subatomic physics, plasma physics, and biophysics.
- ISR - International, Space, and Response division. Their job is to work out ways of monitoring nuclear and chemical weapons proliferation around the globe, using spy satellites. Signal processing is a specialty here, as you might imagine. Sensor development is one component of this; the other is encryption. After all, what good is a spy satellite when everyone can read its transmissions? The research I am familiar from this division is in finding new ways to encrypt and cloak the data going back and forth between us and the satellites. Other areas or research include data storage and satellite design.
- Other divisions - The remaining divisions are Bioscience (B), Chemistry (C), Decision Applications (D), Nonproliferation and International Security (NIS), Health Safety and Radiation (HSR), Computer Communications and Networking(NIS), Computer and Computation Sciences (CCS), Earth & Environmental Science (ESS), and Materials Science and Technology (MST).
Los Alamos, New Mexico is a company town
. Nearly everyone in it is connected to the laboratory in some way. So, if you are a LANL employee, you will always be around others of your kind
. This can be nice, as you will be able to talk about your work with other people, and it won't go over their heads. Trying to talk quantum physics
at your hometown's coffee bar
will likely get you some blank stares and possibly a wedgie
. But in Los Alamos, the guys you go for coffee with are at least as geek
y as you are. If your jibber-jabber
is not in their field of expertise, they will listen and learn
. If it is, they will make suggestions and intelligent discussion on the topic.
of it being a company town, of course, is that you can't ever really escape your work. If you go out drinking
in Los Alamos or a nearby town, you will see co-worker
s. You might run into your boss at the local supermarket, in the park, or at a strip club
. For some, this enables them to do their best work; for others, it makes them a stressed-out mess. I heard it mentioned a few times that Los Alamos also has a very high proportion of their population on antidepressant
s as compared with the rest of the country, but I have no statistics on this.
The one name to know at Los Alamos is George "Pete" Nanos. Pete Nanos was LANL's director
starting in 2003, and managed to make quite a mess of the place. He earned the ire of nearly all of the employees by shutting down the laboratory for a few months "in order to give staff time to rethink their behavior." This shutdown cost taxpayer
s $120-370 million. He impulsively fired people, and had quite the reign of terror
going until he was replaced by Robert Kuckuck in May 2005. Kuckuck is more moderate and charismatic
, and has begun to regain the faith of the remaining employees.
While Nanos is now gone, the damage he did was permanent. Many of the lab employees departed for greener pastures
or early retirement
. The lab, which had been run by the University of California
for 62 years, was put up for bidding; it is now run by a partnership of UC and Bechtel
Corporation, an engineering firm.
Working at Los Alamos:
Los Alamos offers summer internship
s for undergraduate
students. Foreign students are accepted, but will never gain access to the higher security clearances. The application is a snap - you enter your resume
into their database, and any division that needs you will do a keyword search. A phone interview
and some background checks, and you're hired. LANL has lots of vacancies in its upper ranks, thanks to its recent political turmoil
, so there is plenty of room for upward mobility. Still, even entry-level positions pay a good salary. LANL is also a good place to have reference
s from, should you move to another job.
Your actual work experience depends on what division you end up in. Researching the division and subdivision first is a good idea, since each one is like its own company. LANL's official website will give you a good starting point, but the blog
("LANL: The Real Story") contains the best information you can get. If you are squeamish
about supporting the United States' military objectives
, you will likely have a bad time at LANL. I wasn't too comfortable about the fact that I was a microscopic cog
in the weapon-building machine, so I'm not going to go back. My internship there was a great experience, though, and I have no regrets.