National Nuclear Security Administration

Undergraduate students get to talk nuclear stockpile with the experts

May 15, 2018

You are here

Colgate undergraduates group photo
The Colgate University “The Advent of the Atomic Bomb” class

Studying history is undoubtedly important, but it can be a challenge for teachers to make events from decades ago seem exciting and relevant. Not so for one college professor. With a little help from NNSA, Karen Harpp of Colgate University has successfully brought the past to life for her undergraduate class studying “The Advent of the Atomic Bomb.”

The group of nearly 30 students recently traveled to NNSA headquarters in Washington, DC, to get a chance to talk to experts about science-based stockpile stewardship and nuclear policy – both past and present.

Dr. Dale Conwell, Assistant Deputy Administrator for Decision Support in Defense Programs, welcomed students’ questions and even asked some of his own.

Dr. Dale Conwell addresses the class
Dr. Dale Conwell addresses the class

Conwell asked where plutonium mines can be found, which of course is a trick question as they don’t exist. He went on to explain that challenges like trying to forecast the behavior of a metal that has existed so briefly are the types of science problems NNSA addresses all the time.

Conwell also described how explosive atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons used to be performed. “Our understanding is better now than it was then thanks to computer modeling and the data to validate those models,” he said.

Dr. Mark Anderson, Director for the Office of Advanced Simulation and Computing and Institutional R&D picked up the conversation from there.

“Computing has always been a part of the nuclear weapons program dating back to the ladies running the adding machines under Richard Feynman in World War II. Now we run some of the largest supercomputers in the world.”

“Computing has always been a part of the nuclear weapons program dating back to the ladies running the adding machines under Richard Feynman in World War II. Now we run some of the largest supercomputers in the world.”

Dr. Mark Anderson
Director for the Office of Advanced Simulation and Computing and Institutional R&D
A Colgate University student asks a question
A Colgate University student asks a question

At the request of an eager engineering major, Dr. Anderson explained the incredible power Sierra will provide once installation is complete at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. The fact that it is expected to reach 125 petaFLOPS was met with wide-eyed, open-mouthed looks from several students.

Dr. Mark Anderson addresses the class
Dr. Mark Anderson addresses the class

“Daily work is done at a smaller scale, but certain problems are run across the whole machine. When you’re trying to analyze the physics that goes on in a nuclear weapon, then you have to get down into particle interactions, modeling hydrodynamics and high explosive chemical reactions, and it all has to be done simultaneously,” Anderson said.

As the topic of transfer of knowledge and mentoring came up, Shayela Hassan, Program Analyst for the Office of Strategic Planning and Programming spoke about how she kickstarted her career in nuclear security through the NNSA Graduate Fellowship Program and the Pathways internship.

“I have found NNSA to be a great place to work. Fostering diversity and actively mentoring new hires are major priorities. There is a lot to learn, and if you don’t know something, there is always someone you can go to for help,” Hassan said.

Shayela Hassan addresses the class
Shayela Hassan addresses the class

In addition to the discussion with NNSA team members, the students toured the lobby museum. A favorite exhibit was the large timeline featuring historic figures of the Manhattan Project. Professor Harpp explained a rather innovative class project that had several students exclaiming, “Hey look! It’s my guy!”

“Each student in the class is assigned a different historical figure to research. We have a common hashtag for Twitter and everyone in the class tweets as their assigned person. We’ve condensed the story of the bomb, from the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor to the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, into a few months. I give updates about what is happening in the timeline and they react, in character,” Harpp said.

Colgate students peruse the lobby museum at NNSA headquarters
Colgate students peruse the lobby museum at NNSA headquarters 

The results include General Leslie R. Groves tweeting at physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to keep his work secret, Albert Einstein sending virtual condolences to Eleanor Roosevelt in the wake of her husband’s death, and Admiral C. Nimitz tagging President Truman in a message of encouragement.