Bruce T. Goodwin
Associate Director for Defense and Nuclear Technologies
Without Fanfare, Technicians Safely Keep the Laboratory Humming
ERNEST O. Lawrence, the Laboratory’s cofounder, invented the cyclotron, or atom smasher, while he was a physics professor at the University of California (UC). The cyclotron made possible an era of high-energy physics that saw the disintegration of atomic nuclei and the creation of new elements.
Like other universities, UC was not known for building large pieces of research equipment. To efficiently build increasingly larger cyclotrons, Lawrence formed multidisciplinary teams comprising physicists, chemists, engineers, technicians, and other specialists. The multidisciplinary approach was quite novel but very successful.
Lawrence used the same multidisciplinary approach to build one of the premier centers of applied research and engineering at Livermore. Unlike universities, Lawrence Livermore is not built around disciplines such as chemistry, math, and physics. Instead, we draw experts from different disciplines depending on the research project, and members of a team shift to new projects as needs change. This approach to research is one of Lawrence’s major legacies, and it is working superbly 54 years after the Laboratory’s founding.
Technicians, or techs, are essential members of every team, from building anthrax detectors to constructing tiny targets for
the National Ignition Facility. The article “These People Make Things Happen” honors their roles and describes the contributions of five techs from the Energy and Environment, Chemistry and Materials Science, National Ignition Facility Programs, Biosciences, and Computation directorates. Techs are a vital part of other directorates as well, including Defense and Nuclear Technologies.
In forming multidisciplinary teams, we strive for the right balance of researchers. In general, we have a large number of techs working with many engineers and a small group of Ph.D. scientists, who are often striving to realize the ideas of a few theorists. Although scientists tend to receive the limelight, few ever build anything. Techs, however, are expert in electronic, pneumatic, hydraulic, mechanical, laser, and explosive systems, and they are exceptionally talented at working with their hands. A scientist conceived of a handheld detector for anthrax and other airborne diseases, but techs made it a reality.
The requirements for being a Livermore tech include intellectual curiosity, technical smarts, and a desire to learn. We have some of the world’s best techs because they know their stuff, and they know that what they do matters to the nation. Unlike techs at other places, Livermore techs are not involved in production work; they do different things all the time, and every new project is a challenge. Sometimes they don’t know what they’ll be doing next week, but they are certain it will be new and challenging.
Techs are dedicated to safety. We have assignments that involve hazardous materials and equipment, and safety is paramount around high explosives, high voltages, special nuclear materials, high laser fluences, and other environments. Some techs work under difficult conditions such as the Contained Firing Facility at Site 300, where high explosives are tested in a completely contained environment. Following a test, techs reenter the facility in uncomfortable personal protection equipment to retrieve experimental data and begin cleanup. The techs know what can safely be made more efficient. They have recently halved the time it takes to turn the facility around for another test while observing the strictest safety standards.
The techs in our Superblock handle extremely challenging materials such as plutonium. They turn out exquisite parts under daunting high-security conditions. These techs must undergo thorough inspection on entering and exiting their facility. I salute their professionalism.
In another example, techs at the Decontamination and Waste Treatment Facility move radioactive wastes off site. It’s a difficult job, and techs work under an enormous amount of scrutiny from state and federal agencies. These people keep us functioning and safe, and they do their jobs without a lot of fanfare.
Techs make it happen. We wouldn’t have a successful laboratory without them.