This year I had a great opportunity to spend the summer in Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico – an opportunity I have not even dare to dream about before it actually happened.
As you may probably know, the lab was founded in 1943, mainly due to Einsten’s letter to Roosevelt expressing his worries about Germans constructing an atomic bomb. The original purpose of the laboratory was to develop the nuclear weapons faster than the Nazis. This started the infamous project Manhattan, with physicists like Feynman, von Neumann, Fermi, Oppenheimer and many other scientific giants being involved. The good intent of stopping the world war ended in misuse of the weapons by the government in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. These events are an integral part of the laboratory history and cast a thick shade on numerous scientific successes of the lab.
I was interning in the theory division (civil section of course) focusing on plasma physics and applied mathematics. Besides fundamental research, the problems being solved in the division contribute to development of fusion power plants. These should provide a mean of overcoming the energy crisis in the near future, which I find very motivating.
As a second year BSc student, I did not have much means to contribute to the cutting-edge research. I tried very hard though. During the placement I completed two projects concerning the collisional transport in plasmas and one other side project. Although the outcomes of my work were not direct this summer, being 2.5 months in Los Alamos and working 10 hours a day on the projects (and thinking about them the rest of the time) moved me a lot further in my studies – and also my life.
The Los Alamos/Santa Fe county experience was great as well. After a week of crash-landing in Santa Fe sikh community, thanks to last-minute AirBnB booking, I ended up living on an indian (native american) land. The place was located in the middle of a highway between Santa Fe and Los Alamos. It was a small pueblo in badlands, called Pojoaque. I was sharing a mobile home with a mexican guy, his wife and two children. Eric was just finishing his masters in economics at the New Mexico State, having a long term placement in the laboratory. I have to admit I was extremely lucky, as Eric was extremely chilled-out and clever person and I had amazing times sharing the house with him. Also the fact that he was employed in the lab was really convenient for both of us, as we carpooled every day.
There were a few exciting things about “the butterfly springs” — the name of the mobile home colony and (as I believe) a translation of hispanic-sounding Pojoaque. Firstly, as banal as it may sound, there was a (small and not mall !) supermarket in a walking distance to the mobile home community. Quite unusual in this part of the states. Thanks to the regular carpools, this prevented me from depending on a car ownership. Secondly, there were beautiful mesas (flat top mountains) surrounding the town. I spent lots of time regularly jogging at the top of them in the dusk. There was also a beautiful museum of native culture, which I visited a few times. It appeared to be deserted all the time – so I felt a bit sorry for the guys taking care of it at first. As I learned later however, the museum was sponsored by an indian owned casino. Almost every surviving pueblo of the Tewa/Tiwa cultures in the Santa Fe and Los Alamos counties had one, as these are illegal on the US land – so the indians have de facto a gambling monopole in New Mexico. The casinos support the pueblo administration, tribal police, museums, scholarships for young and so on. In fact, many Santa Fe cowboys were offering their salaries on day to day basis for the upkeep of the pueblo by these means. It was quite a shocking experience seeing all the grannies bending their backs in front of the slot machines covered in pink cat pictures – a thing I would call a proper cultural shock.
Concerning the social sides of my stay, I have to say that besides meeting Eric, I was really lucky to have such a great mentor for my research, as well as to know Katka Falk (researcher in lasers) who in fact initiated my whole trip to LANL. I spent enjoyable weekends with her and her husband on trips to various ruins of the original indian settlement or some other landmarks. These were always a great recharger after the week spent in the office.
To sum it up, LANL stay was an amazing once-in-lifetime opportunity to find out how the real physics lab works. I was extremely lucky to have my profile here, as it initiated the contact between me and Katka. Besides being the best company during my stay, she, together with my mentor took care of all the necessary administration required for the placement, for which I am enormously grateful.
Autor: Vojtech Havlíček, študent fyziky na Imperial College