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Title: In Defense of the National Labs and Big-Budget Science

The purpose of this paper is to present the unofficial and unsanctioned opinions of a Visiting Scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on the values of LLNL and the other National Labs. The basic founding value and goal of the National Labs is big-budget scientific research, along with smaller-budget scientific research that cannot easily be done elsewhere. The most important example in the latter category is classified defense-related research. The historical guiding light here is the Manhattan Project. This endeavor was unique in human history, and might remain so. The scientific expertise and wealth of an entire nation was tapped in a project that was huge beyond reckoning, with no advance guarantee of success. It was in many respects a clash of scientific titans, with a large supporting cast, collaborating toward a single well-defined goal. Never had scientists received so much respect, so much money, and so much intellectual freedom to pursue scientific progress. And never was the gap between theory and implementation so rapidly narrowed, with results that changed the world, completely. Enormous resources are spent at the national or international level on large-scale scientific projects. LLNL has the most powerful computer in the world, Blue Gene/L. (Oops, Losmore » Alamos just seized the title with Roadrunner; such titles regularly change hands.) LLNL also has the largest laser in the world, the National Ignition Facility (NIF). Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) has the most powerful microscope in the world. Not only is it beyond the resources of most large corporations to make such expenditures, but the risk exceeds the possible rewards for those corporations that could. Nor can most small countries afford to finance large scientific projects, and not even the richest can afford largess, especially if Congress is under major budget pressure. Some big-budget research efforts are funded by international consortiums, such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, and the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Cadarache, France, a magnetic-confinement fusion research project. The postWWII histories of particle and fusion physics contain remarkable examples of both international competition, with an emphasis on secrecy, and international cooperation, with an emphasis on shared knowledge and resources. Initiatives to share sometimes came from surprising directions. Most large-scale scientific projects have potential defense applications. NIF certainly does; it is primarily designed to create small-scale fusion explosions. Blue Gene/L operates in part in service to NIF, and in part to various defense projects. The most important defense projects include stewardship of the national nuclear weapons stockpile, and the proposed redesign and replacement of those weapons with fewer, safer, more reliable, longer-lived, and less apocalyptic warheads. Many well-meaning people will consider the optimal lifetime of a nuclear weapon to be zero, but most thoughtful people, when asked how much longer they think this nation will require them, will ask for some time to think. NIF is also designed to create exothermic small-scale fusion explosions. The malapropos 'exothermic' here is a convenience to cover a profusion of complexities, but the basic idea is that the explosions will create more recoverable energy than was used to create them. One can hope that the primary future benefits of success for NIF will be in cost-effective generation of electrical power through controlled small-scale fusion reactions, rather than in improved large-scale fusion explosions. Blue Gene/L also services climate research, genomic research, materials research, and a myriad of other computational problems that become more feasible, reliable, and precise the larger the number of computational nodes employed. Blue Gene/L has to be sited within a security complex for obvious reasons, but its value extends to the nation and the world. There is a duality here between large-scale scientific research machines and the supercomputers used to model them. An astounding example is illustrated in a graph released by EFDAJET, at Oxfordshire, UK, presently the largest operating magnetic-confinement fusion experiment. The graph shows plasma confinement times (an essential performance parameter) for all the major tokamaks in the international fusion program, over their existing lifetimes. The remarkable thing about the data is not so much confinement-time versus date or scale, but the fact that the data are given for both the computer model predictions and the actual experimental measurements, and the two are in phenomenal agreement over the extended range of scales. Supercomputer models, sometimes operating with the intricacy of Schroedinger's equation at quantum physical scales, have become a costly but enormously cost-saving tool.« less
Authors:
Publication Date:
OSTI Identifier:
945748
Report Number(s):
LLNL-TR-406705
TRN: US200904%%140
DOE Contract Number:
W-7405-ENG-48
Resource Type:
Technical Report
Research Org:
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Livermore, CA
Sponsoring Org:
USDOE
Country of Publication:
United States
Language:
English
Subject:
45 MILITARY TECHNOLOGY, WEAPONRY, AND NATIONAL DEFENSE; 99 GENERAL AND MISCELLANEOUS; 45 MILITARY TECHNOLOGY, WEAPONRY, AND NATIONAL DEFENSE; 99 GENERAL AND MISCELLANEOUS; 74 ATOMIC AND MOLECULAR PHYSICS; COMPUTERS; CONFINEMENT TIME; DUALITY; EXPENDITURES; EXPERIMENTAL REACTORS; EXPLOSIONS; HADRONS; INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION; LASERS; LIFETIME; MAGNETIC CONFINEMENT; MANHATTAN PROJECT; MICROSCOPES; NUCLEAR WEAPONS; PLASMA CONFINEMENT; SUPERCOMPUTERS; US NATIONAL IGNITION FACILITY; WEAPONS