The occasional neighborhood forest fire is one difference between Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and its offspring, Sandia National Laboratories, which was born in 1945 as LANL's Z Division. A rich literature is another.
One book that makes my list of essential New Mexico books, required reading for understanding the state, is Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."
While Los Alamos remains in the national defense and nuclear business, it, like Sandia, does much more. Website wandering at www.lanl.gov uncovers some of the diversity.
LANL's most recent point of pride is Mustomo Inc., a start-up working with the University of New Mexico Hospital on a breast-cancer ultrasound system that produces "three-dimensional images of virtually every fraction of tissue being examined," the Albuquerque Journal reported.
LANL.gov states the mission as "scientific inquiry supporting nuclear deterrence, reducing global threats, fostering energy security." The Science and Innovation tag on the top left of the lanl.gov home page lists a dozen "capabilities."
Click on "Accelerators, Electrodynamics" and you find three sentences defining Los Alamos. "National security depends on science and technology. The United States relies on Los Alamos National Laboratory for the best of both. No place on Earth pursues a broader array of world-class scientific endeavors."
In 33 words we have the focus on national security, the diversity with a broad array of work, and the excellence. All tucked onto the top of the Pajarito Plateau.
World-class excellence disappears in the banality of standard economic development statements about New Mexico. These statements, mentioned recently in the Sandia Labs column, dismiss the laboratories with, "The labs are great, but we have to build the private sector." Well, yeah. So?
Another way to consider LANL's work lies in the 19 topics divided among the media contacts. Global security has four topics. Nuclear weapons has three. Science, technology and engineering have 11, ranging from bioscience, earth and space science to supercomputing, new materials and sensors. Another ten topics divide among environmental management and community programs.
Back on the home page, the tag "Collaboration," offers a technology transfer menu. "Technologies Available for Licensing" shows 30 opportunities. It used to be said that the national labs didn't have technologies lounging on the shelf. Apparently that isn't quite true any more. One technology is ripped from today's energy headlines. It will improve the effectiveness of hydraulic fracturing.
The annual R&D 100 Awards from R&D Magazine offer a measure of national laboratory practicality. The awards celebrate "the top 100 technology products of the year," the magazine says. Notice the word "products." This isn't fantasy stuff.
Los Alamos scored three awards in 2012, moving its total to about 125. Sandia's total is just over 100.
The legacy goes to the early days. Lanl.gov starts with the "Faces of Science." The first face is Stanslaw Ulam, discoverer (with John von Neumann, according to Richard Rhodes) of the Monte Carlo method for simulations. Applications today include risk analysis. Simulations and other large scale calculations work better with computers than the 1940s approachsquads of young women with electronic calculators. That computersever more powerful lie at the core of the work done by Los Alamos and Sandia is the sense of this layman.
Computers are central to my favorite LANL spinoff, the Santa Fe Institute, the multidisciplinary research outfit that does non-linear dynamics or complex adaptive systems. SFI counts as a spinoff because the nine founders included seven from Los Alamos, among them George Cowan.
An urban legend claims that LANL's location related to the first director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, attending the Los Alamos Ranch Schools for Boys. Wrong. Oppenheimer knew of the school from years of visiting the area, but he did not attend.
Harold Morgan has tracked the New Mexico economy for decades. He was editor for 20 years and publisher for four years of Progress, a business newsletter and was the founding editor of the New Mexico Business Journal.