My grandfather was a physicist. A brilliant man, who aspired to greatness. His remarkably distinguished academic career culminated in professorship and ultimately, leadership over a major university. He worked in the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

To say that he wasn't a terribly social man would be to put it kindly. He was extremely well read and loved to argue. Some people found him overbearing. It never bothered me much. As a child I would sit in his study when we visited and we would argue heatedly about things. I learned his favorite phrase early. "You're wrong, you're just wrong.."

A giant of a man, in several respects. He moved heavily, he thought heavily, and he condemned heavily the things he simply could not accept. A teacher, he loathed ignorance, or what he saw as such, and spent massive amounts of time pouring through his sizeable library. It seemed you could not speak to him of a thing which he hadn't read several books about and he occasionally enjoyed quoting by page number. He multiplied six digit numbers in his head for the enjoyment of his grandchildren.

He bought me the first PC I would ever own, at a time when the price of food and clothing were more a concern than any form of luxury. It arrived in large brown boxes, unloaded one at a time by the UPS driver in the middle of the summer, unrelated to any holiday or birthday in the family. No lengthy note was included and when we thanked him, he just sort of grumbled, but you could see happiness in his eyes.

As I grew older, he grew more and more distant from the world at large. He would spend most of his days in his study, reading and following the fields of research he had lived for, advances in particle theory, acoustics, and a plethora of other subjects. I think he had always thought he might one day win the Nobel Prize. As he got older, he seemed irritated with the state of the world and tired of trying to fight it.

I always got along better with him than most of the rest of the family. They took his remarks that they were wrong to mean they were stupid, his disbelief as insult. I always found it a little amusing and it wasn't so important that we agree in the end, but that I learn something. I always learned something.

Shortly before he died, I got into a conversation with him about nuclear energy. "Listen," he said. "What do you think of when you think of nuclear power?" The child of two ex-hippies, I shrugged and envisioned mushroom clouds, "Death." He sighed and argued back about the benefit of nuclear reactors in powering our houses, about why use of the bomb was necessary when it was used, about how nuclear technology had spawned developments in other directions. In the end he seemed only frustrated at my nonacceptance.

I don't think I ever saw him again after that, or if I did, the subject never came up. He died shortly thereafter. It wasn't until a long time later that I realized he had not just been defending his belief, but his field, and beyond that, his life. He'd given his health and the majority of his lifetime to the creation of something that people openly ridiculed as a horror to humanity. No doubt it wasn't the first time he'd heard the words in my responses, but I can't help feeling it added a particular barb to receive such blatant rejection from the children of his own blood.

This man knew Einstein, was at the peak of his field, and fought for what he thought was right. Was it worth it? Are the deeds of great men to be reflected through public sentiment? What happens when you fight your entire life for something you think is right and in the end, nobody thanks you?

I miss my grandfather sometimes. He was a great man. Human, imperfect, and great. I don't have to agree with all that he did to respect it. Sometimes I consider what I might have seen in his eyes had my answers been different. I wonder if I won't have my own conversations with grandchildren in the future. By what measure will my own life be judged?
Here's a little history about LANL...

On December 6, 1941 -- the day before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor -- President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an order establishing the "Manhattan Project," on the advice of Albert Einstein, to build an atomic bomb. General Leslie Groves was put in charge of the project, and Robert Oppenheimer was made head of the development and production side of things. The site of a remote boys' school called the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico was chosen as the headquarters of the Manhattan Project in 1942. The school was moved out, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory was built.

Having dispensed with that very brief review of stateside WWII history, lemme add that I've visited the Los Alamos area often (though I rarely get to see anything but the outside of the National Laboratory buildings), and I really do like LANL a lot. Aside from the beautiful forested scenery of the area, I just like the idea of a whole town built for the advancement of science. Regardless of whether or not you think the A-Bomb was a necessary or unnecessary evil, LANL has had many other accomplishments -- in all branches of the sciences -- since then, and the oft-repeated wish (usually expressed in the guestbook of the excellent Bradbury Museum) that the entire town of Los Alamos should be demolished seems extremely counterproductive. Hell, it's probably the only town in the country where geeks outnumber the normals -- what's not to love?

"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.

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 geeky 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.
The downside 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-workers. 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 antidepressants as compared with the rest of the country, but I have no statistics on this.

Recent Politics:
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 taxpayers $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 internships for undergraduate and graduate 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 references 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.

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