My View: Broader Impacts

picture of Charles McMillan

This issue of 1663 highlights the sometimes surprising ways in which our enduring national security missions—the reasons why the nation continues to turn to Los Alamos—are enriched by the strength of our technical capabilities. These capabilities, including those in the areas of materials science, predictive modeling and simulation, and the science of signatures, were developed to address difficult national security challenges but often have wider unanticipated benefits for society. Our ability to realize these broader impacts at a national security laboratory is a key reason that the next generation of scientists will choose a career at Los Alamos.

The effects of turbulence and shock waves are fundamentally important to understanding the performance of nuclear weapons, and our ability to simulate these effects with confidence is increasingly important in a world with fewer nuclear weapons and without nuclear testing. At a cosmic scale, these effects also dictate the dynamics of the formation of planets in solar systems. Recent discoveries have proven that our galaxy has a much richer variety of planetary systems than previously known. Our simulations explore the physics underlying this diversity.

Our ability to use the most advanced science and engineering to keep our vital information secure has led to a breakthrough in cryptography, using quantum key distribution. This encryption system is simple yet theoretically unbreakable because it uses the inherent features of quantum measurement coupled with advanced optical signal processing. This encryption system is not only a technological breakthrough but also a commercial prototype that may revolutionize the security of Internet communications.

Advanced computing research performed on Los Alamos supercomputers to address biosecurity challenges, dating back to before the Human Genome Project, has continued to thrive here, most recently serving as a means of testing the capabilities of the first petaflop-class hybrid supercomputer, Roadrunner. As part of last year's Roadrunner computing challenge, a team of scientists constructed a phylogeny tree tracing the evolution of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) since it first emerged in the early 1980s. In this issue, we learn how these capabilities are now being applied to design the first HIV vaccine developed and optimized completely by computer. This advance offers the best current hope of vanquishing the world's most deadly human infectious disease, responsible for killing 2 million people every year.

This issue also features the interplay between capability and mission in global security, climate science, nanotechnology, and our electronic research library. Our ability to sustain such a diversity of vibrant science and engineering, while also delivering solutions to national security problems, remains a distinguishing feature of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Charles McMillan,
Principal Associate Director for Weapons Programs


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