Sarah Scoles writes: It’s 5:15 a.m. and dark when I drive over Raton Pass, the 7,835-foot-high saddle right at the boundary between Colorado and New Mexico. Animal crossing signs whiz by my window: first a clip-art bear, then an elk, then a deer. “Watch out” is an apt way to enter the state, particularly on this trip: New Mexico is the birthplace of the nuclear bomb and the site of its first test. That initial blast occurred southeast of Socorro, under the auspices of Los Alamos National Lab-led Manhattan Project. But today, I’m headed for a different research facility.
Sandia National Laboratories is tasked, in part, with studying nuclear weapons. But the lab, located in Albuquerque, also investigates the fundamental nature of the universe itself. And my ultimate destination inside Sandia’s secure gates—the ominously-named Z-machine—can do both.
The Z-machine harnesses electricity to create extreme conditions that match those in nuclear bomb detonations, (hypothetical) fusion reactors, and the centers of stars. Machines like Z are the only way—short of exploding a weapon or sojourning inside the sun, neither of which is recommended—to measure how matter behaves in these environments. It’s all part of Sandia’s main mission: “keeping the US nuclear stockpile safe, secure, and effective.”
When I arrive at Sandia, I get a visitor badge and go through the gate into Kirtland Air Force Base, speckled with low, neutrally-colored buildings. The lab is government-owned—by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration—and company-operated, staffed by civilians. … (read more)