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Frontiers in Science Archive

The Frontiers in Science lecture series are a public service of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellows. Fellows are appointed by the Laboratory Director in recognition of sustained outstanding contributions and exceptional promise for continued professional achievement. All lectures are open to the public and free of charge.

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Protecting the power grid with physics

Raymond NewellLos Alamos National Laboratory


Every day, we try to keep important information — like our emails and our bank accounts — safe from hackers. But when it comes to protecting the energy grid, clever passwords and anti-malware packages are simply not enough.

The solution? Physics. Join Raymond Newell for a fascinating look at Quantum-Ensured Defense of the Smart Electric Grid (QED), a new approach for power security. This cutting-edge technique uses single particles of light for encryption and authentication to keep our secrets safe and our grid secure — now and into the future.

Newell is a research scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he has been employed since 2003. He holds a doctorate in atomic, molecular and optical physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He leads the Quantum Communications team at Los Alamos, and is deputy group leader for the Materials Physics and Applications Quantum group. His research interests span the broad range of quantum information sciences for national security. In addition, Newell is the chief optical scientist for the SuperCam Body Unit, a suite of remote sensing instruments aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars.


Coexisting with COVID-19: Disease forecasting and science

Nick Hengartner, Will Fischer and Judy MourantLos Alamos National Laboratory

On Feb. 24, the Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellows invite you to the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 in “Coexisting with COVID-19 and the role of science,” the latest installment of the now-virtual Frontiers in Science series.

This moderated conversation features computational evolutionary biologist Will Fischer (T-6), applied mathematician Nick Hengartner (T-6) and biological physicist Judy Mourant (B-11), with time for questions and answers.

Join some of the Lab’s top minds for a fascinating discussion on what we’ve learned about the coronavirus down to the genomic level, and what the scientific outlook is for the future of humanity’s relationship with the virus post-inoculation.

As the former leader of the Theoretical Biology and Biophysics group for more than seven years, Hengartner is privy to the astonishing work of one of the few research groups in the world devoted to mathematical modeling and computational analysis of problems in cellular and molecular biology.

Research efforts include understanding dynamics and treatment of viral diseases such as HIV, influenza and hepatitis as well as immune system modeling and much, much more.



The NASA Perseverance Mars Rover: Looking for signs of past life

Nina Lanza, Los Alamos National Laboratory

lanza-nina2.jpgOn any given day lightning flashes nearly 4 million times across the earth. Yet it’s surprising that this routine natural phenomenon is still commonly misunderstood.

Mars has long held a special place in the human imagination as a sci-fi world inhabited by Martians. The real Mars is very different from what we imagined but our observations suggest that life could have existed there in the distant past.

Watch planetary scientist Nina Lanza discuss the role of NASA’s Perseverance rover that will look for signs of ancient life on Mars and also collect samples to bring back to Earth on a future return mission for the first time.

In this virtual talk attended by over 500 people on October 7, 2020, Lanza explains how the instruments aboard the rover called “SuperCam” will uniquely identify geological material, and the process for carefully retrieving and preparing samples of rock.

She also shares some insights on what it's like as part of a team to remotely operate the current Curiosity rover that is looking for signs of habitability on the red planet.

The discussion covers a wide range of topics including the contributions of Los Alamos scientists and engineers to the Perseverance and Curiosity rover programs, Lanza’s career path and advice to students interested in pursuing a career in space science.



Lightning: Illuminating its mystery

Tess Light, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Tess LightOn any given day lightning flashes nearly 4 million times across the earth. Yet it’s surprising that this routine natural phenomenon is still commonly misunderstood.

What triggers those bright cracks across the sky and determines the shape of a lightning bolt?

Join Los Alamos scientist Tess Light on a journey to explore lightning’s role in the atmosphere and some of the mysteries of this beautiful and puzzling phenomenon.


Gold: from the Big Bang to the Amazon forest

Terry Wallace, Los Alamos Laboratory director emeritus

Terry WallaceMinerals are the planet’s DNA, containing the fragments of the Earth’s complex history from its formation nearly 4.6 billion years ago to the rise of life. Gold is one of the most fascinating of the 4,500 mineral species on Earth, and no mineral (or metal) evokes more emotion. But it also has an incredible scientific story: a gold nugget is made of material that was not born in our planet or even our solar system.

Join Laboratory director emeritus Terry Wallace as he explores the beauty of the cosmic and tectonic journey that gold has taken, and the spell it has cast over humankind.


Toward a world without AIDS: Developing a vaccine against HIV

Bette Korber, Los Alamos Laboratory Fellow

Bette KorberOur immune system precisely targets and eliminates pathogens when we get an infection, and our immune cells have a remarkable capacity to “remember” such an encounter, acquiring protection that can last a lifetime. Vaccines work by tapping into this immunological memory. But what happens when the immune response faces a highly variable pathogen, such as HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), which evolves so rapidly that virtually every infection is different?

Join Bette Korber, R&D Magazine’s 2018 Scientist of the Year, as she discusses viruses and vaccines, and her work on innovative HIV vaccine designs that trigger an immune response that can “remember” and recognize a virus that is constantly changing.



Improving our lives at the speed of light: The impact of particle accelerators on medicine, industry and science

Bruce Carlsten, Los Alamos Laboratory Fellow

Bruce CarlstenParticle accelerators impact all aspects of our lives, from fighting cancer to processing food and enabling key scientific discoveries. Simple accelerators can be as small as dental X-ray tools while large ones like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN can stretch over miles and cost billions of dollars.

The talk will discuss the major accelerator types and how they work, outline their many valuable uses, and explore the future of accelerator science and technology.



The Power of Light and the Very Small Things Used to Transform It

Jennifer Hollingsworth, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Jennifer HollingsworthPhotons are the elementary particle responsible for light. If the 20th century depended on electronics, it is predicted that the 21st century will depend as much on photonics: the science and application of making, detecting, controlling and transforming photons.

This talk will ‘shine a light’ on light and show how ultrasmall (nanoscale) particles of matter and engineered structures are being used to amplify its power to make light bulbs more efficient, cancer drugs more potent, TVs more vivid and color rich, and communication more secure.


Kilopower: Powering NASA Missions on Mars

Patrick McClure, Los Alamos National Laboratory Kilopower Project Lead
David Poston, Los Alamos National Laboratory Kilopower Chief Reactor Designer


Powering a Habitat on Mars with Kilopower

If humans travel to live on Mars or the moon in the not-so-distant future, what kind of power source will they use when they get there? It needs to be small yet potent enough to reliably power an extraterrestrial habitat, and also make fuel for the trip home.

Join Los Alamos National Laboratory project lead Patrick McClure and chief reactor designer David Poston as they discuss the design and testing of Kilopower: a very small and simple nuclear reactor developed at the Laboratory in conjunction with NASA that the agency hopes will one day power a colony in space.



Whether there’s weather in space

Geoff Reeves
Los Alamos Laboratory Fellow


Whether there’s weather in space - Frontiers in Science

Space is not a dark, cold void as many people think. Instead, it churns with energy—in the form of magnetic fields and electrically-charged particles. The sun hurls that energy toward the Earth in a “solar wind” that blows at over two million miles per hour. Intense solar storms can disrupt communications, compromise power grids, and even influence your day-to-day life on Earth.

Join Geoff Reeves, with the Lab’s Space Science & Applications group, as he talks about his research on just how space weather impacts our planet and the discoveries still to be made.


The Mystery of Detonation

David S. Moore
Los Alamos Laboratory Fellow


The Mystery of Detonation - Frontiers in Science

Did you ever wonder about those huge explosions you see on TV and at the movies? Surprisingly, despite the 150 years that have passed since Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, much of the science of detonation and explosion that leads up to those explosive spectacles remains a mystery.

This talk will lead you on a roller coaster ride through time and space as we watch molecules being crushed and rearranged,
liberating the heat and gases that drive the explosion forward to its spectacular conclusion. We will explore various kinds of explosions, what is needed for a detonation, and the current state-of-the-art in experiments and modeling of detonations.



Hacking Photosynthesis: Growing Plants to Power Our Engines and Feed the World

Richard Sayre
Bioenergy and Biome Sciences


Growing Plants to Power Our Engines and Feed the World

Photosynthesis uses light from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air to make chemicals that can be converted into energy-rich biofuels. Plants, however, transform less than five percent of the solar energy they capture into harvestable chemical energy. This talk will describe strategies to improve the energy yield in algae and plant systems, resulting in more fuel in our tanks and more food on our plates, without releasing additional carbon into the atmosphere.


Beyond Pluto: The Search for the Edge of the Solar System

Herbert O. Funsten
Intelligence & Space Research


Beyond Pluto: The Search for the Edge of the Solar System

In July, we finally visited the last major body of our solar system, Pluto. But what lies beyond? The stellar wind from our Sun forms an enormous nearby bubble. This “sphere of our Sun,” or heliosphere, extends far beyond Pluto and forms a protective cocoon that shields us from cosmic radiation.

In this talk, we will travel to the edge of the solar system, peer into the structure and dynamics of the outer heliosphere as it interacts with the interstellar medium and anticipate the future of the solar system as it moves through our galactic neighborhood.


The Microbe Strikes Back: The Return of Tuberculosis

Harshini Mukundan
Physical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, Los Alamos National Laboratory


Disease Diagnostics Research at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Human evolution and persistent diseases have existed side-by-side. A recent concern is the re-emergence of tuberculosis, one of the oldest and most challenging diseases known to man.

Effective diagnosis can save lives and prevent its spread. This talk will cover how our immune system discriminates between itself and foreign entities and how a new laboratory and nature inspired strategy can detect tuberculosis equally well in human and animal populations. The approach is being extended to other applications such as the identification of strep throat and respiratory infections.



Does One Big Earthquake Lead to Another?

Paul Johnson
Geophysics Group-Earth and Environmental Sciences, Los Alamos National Laboratory


Does One Big Earthquake Lead to Another?

While large earthquakes have occurred throughout the Earth's history, their number has dramatically increased in the last ten to fifteen years.

  • What is it that makes the earth move under our feet?
  • How is it that earthquakes can cause other earthquakes?
  • Can human activities, such as "fracking," also trigger earthquakes?


Sound Science: Seeing, building and moving with acoustics

Dipen Sinha
Materials Synthesis and Integrated Devices, Los Alamos National Laboratory


Science of Sound at Los Alamos National Laboratory

From tin whistles to sonic booms, sound waves interact with each other and with the medium through which they travel.

By observing these interactions, we can identify substances that are hidden in sealed containers and obtain images of buried objects.

By manipulating the ability of sound to push matter around, we can create novel structures and unique materials.

The Lab’s own sound hound, Dipen Sinha, describes how he uses fundamental research in acoustics for solving problems in industry, security and health.


Forests and Climate Change: It's not easy staying green

Nathan McDowell
Earth Systems Observations Group,
Los Alamos National Laboratory


Tree Drought and Climate Changes

Climate warming is imposing a threat upon our forests unlike any other they have experienced in thousands of years. Warming dries the forests so that, from the perspective of the trees, even short droughts are severe.

No forests appear to be immune to this challenge.

This talk explains the scientific basis for these conclusions and discuss the options we have for maintaining our forests in the face of this massive threat.



Matter vs Antimatter: How did we survive the big bang?

Vincenzo Cirigliano
Nuclear and Particle Physics, Astrophysics, and Cosmology, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Every fundamental particle in nature has a corresponding antiparticle: when the two meet, they annihilate into a burst of radiation.

Particles and antiparticles were produced in equal numbers in the aftermath of the big bang: so, as the primordial soup cooled, they should have completely destroyed each other, leaving behind a universe with no matter.

Instead, an imbalance of matter over antimatter developed, eventually leading to galaxies and stars and planets and ... us!

How did this asymmetry arise? Can the known laws of physics explain it? What can subatomic physics experiments teach us?


Nature, Nurture, or Neither? The new science of epigenetics

Karissa Sanbonmatsu
Theoretical Biology and Biophysics Group, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Is our behavior and physical appearance hardwired by our DNA, or a product of our environment?

New advances in molecular biology are providing a third option to the age-old debate of "Nature versus Nurture." While DNA is often considered the blueprint of life, environmental factors can affect genes for more than three generations (mother, child, grandchild, and great-grandchild).

This heritable switching on and off of genes is called "epigenetics," and has been associated with diet, exercise, mate preference, depression, autism, eating disorders and response to abuse.

In this lecture, Dr. Sanbonmatsu discusses the new science of epigenetics and how it relates to a wide range of biological phenomena, from plant growth to how newborn mammals handle stress.


Exploring Mars: Curiosity and its laser

Roger Wiens
Space and Remote Sensing Group, Los Alamos National Laboratory

On August 6, 2012, the one-ton Curiosity rover was lowered to the Martian soil by a ‘Sky Crane,’ settling on its own six wheels.

Curiosity sports 10 instruments, an arm that weighs as much as a whole previous generation Mars rover, and a laser that vaporizes bits of rock up to 25 feet away to determine their compositions. The setting for its travels is 90 mile-wide Gale crater and the ultimate destination is a 3-mile high mountain of Martian sedimentary layers.

This talk describes the rover, its journey to Mars, and Curiosity's new discoveries.



Higgs Boson and Beyond: The quest for new laws of physics

Michael L Graesser
Theoretical Division, Los Alamos National Laboratory

In 2012 a highly-anticipated particle was discovered at the Large Hadron Collider. Is this particle the Higgs boson? The Higgs boson gives mass to quarks and electrons but how and why are mysteries. This talk describes what we know about this new particle and speculate about discoveries that might now be on the horizon.