(DIRECT CURRENT THEME PLAYS)
MATT DOZIER: Hello, I’m Matt Dozier.
ALLISON LANTERO: And I’m Allison Lantero. Welcome to Direct Current - An Energy.gov Podcast.
LANTERO: The public often tends to think government agencies harbor secrets.
DOZIER: The Energy Department is no exception. After all, the agency has its roots in the Manhattan Project -- the top-secret World War II project to develop an atomic bomb.
LANTERO: And sometimes we do keep secrets for national security. But other times, there are secrets too juicy not to share.
DOZIER: This episode, we’re going to let you in on...
SOFT VOICE: (Whispered) Energy secrets.
LANTERO: We’re pulling back the curtain on four stories about things you might be surprised to learn that the Energy Department works on -- from the physics of diapers to the mysterious death of a U.S. president.
DOZIER: So prepare yourself to step into a world of…
SOFT VOICE: (Whispered) Energy secrets.
PAUL LESTER: Netflix just released the second season of the hit sci-fi show Stranger Things. If haven’t seen it, Stranger Things is set in fictional 1980s Hawkins, Indiana, a small town where a boy mysteriously goes missing. His friends are joined by a girl with supernatural abilities as they search for the truth, which leads them to an alternate dimension… and the Department of Energy.
(STRANGER THINGS THEME MUSIC PLAYS)
LESTER: Yes, that’s right, the Energy Department, where I, Paul Lester -- and thousands of my closest friends -- work. After binge-watching the show last year, I wrote a fun blog post about some of the things *Stranger* Things got wrong in its depiction of the Energy Department, like the non-existent Hawkins National Laboratory.
Much like the show, it kinda blew up. I was interviewed by Wired Magazine, and the post was covered by media outlets like Vanity Fair, Business Insider and more. Even the creators of the show, the Duffer Brothers, talked about it during an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered.
ARI SHAPIRO: To some people, the show apparently felt a little too real. In "Stranger Things," a Department of Energy facility gets up to some nefarious activities. And a couple of weeks ago, the real Department of Energy decided it needed to set the record straight.
DUFFER BROTHER 1: I love that the Department of Energy issued a public statement that they're not evil. That was like - that's my favorite thing.
DUFFER BROTHER 2: Out of thousands of scientists, none of them are evil. But it's, like...
DUFFER BROTHER 1: I bet there's one evil one.
DUFFER BROTHER 2: There's one - (laughter) someone in there is evil. In a thousand people, someone's not a good guy.
DUFFER BROTHER 1: Someone's up to no good.
DUFFER BROTHER 2: Yeah.
SHAPIRO: That is actually one of the bullet points in the DOE's slightly tongue-in-cheek blog post, quote, "national laboratory scientists aren't evil." Other headlines from the blog post include, the Energy Department doesn't mess with monsters and the Energy Department doesn't explore parallel universes.
LESTER: Duffer brothers: I have an ...
SOFT VOICE: (Whispered) Energy secret.
LESTER: Well, it’s more like a confession. I was wrong. After the blog post came out, a few people who work here got in touch with me and said, “You know, actually, we DO do some of that stuff.”
Turns out, the Energy Department DOES study other dimensions -- just not the sinister ones where demogorgons and other monsters live. To find out more, I headed to the department’s Germantown, Maryland, campus -- which, I’ll be honest, kind of has a Stranger Things vibe with its narrow hallways and Cold War-era architecture. The campus was built in the 1950s under the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to serve as a fallout shelter in the event of a nuclear attack on the nation’s capital.
Oh, for the record, the part about Energy Department scientists *not* being evil -- that’s still completely accurate. While Stranger Things has the sinister Dr. Martin Brenner, for example, we’ve got these guys:
JIM SIEGRIST: I’m Jim Siegrist, I’m associate director in the Office of Science for the Office of High Energy Physics.
MICHAEL COOKE: I’m Michael Cooke, I’m a program manager for strategic planning and communications in the Office of High Energy Physics.
LESTER: Jim and Mike are scientists who study this seemingly otherworldly stuff. They set me straight about what Stranger Things got right when it comes to parallel dimensions.
SIEGRIST: So we don’t know if there are extra dimensions or not yet but that’s certainly something we’re looking for. The title of one of the episodes was the Acrobat and the Flea, which accurately describes how we think extra dimensions might look. So that part of the story was correctly done by the show.
(AUDIO CLIP FROM “STRANGER THINGS”)
MR. CLARKE: Picture an acrobat standing on a tightrope. Now, the tightrope is our dimension. And our dimension has rules. You can move forwards or backwards. But what if, right next to our acrobat, there is a flea. Now the flea can also travel back and forth, just like the acrobat, right?
MIKE WHEELER: Right.
MR. CLARKE: Here’s where things get really interesting. The flea can also travel this way, along the side of the rope. He can even go underneath the rope.
KIDS (TOGETHER): Upside-down.
MR. CLARKE: Exactly.
LESTER: So, what the acrobat and flea analogy describes is a concept known as string theory, in which subatomic particles don’t just move in and out of the three-dimensional space and one dimension of time where we all exist, but also in extra dimensions that particle physicists haven’t found yet. In fact, physicists think there may be much more to the universe than the five percent of it that is made out of ordinary matter. Mike explains.
COOKE: There’s another 20 percent that’s dark matter, it’s stuff we don’t understand but we’re looking for. And the rest is dark energy, which is something we completely don’t understand but might be pushing the universe apart, making it accelerate in its expansion faster and faster. Similarly, as you go to higher energy, you probe smaller and smaller scales.
LESTER: So it’s here, at these smaller scales, where the Stranger Things analogy meets particle physics!
COOKE: So, in the acrobat and the flea, this idea that you could have an dimension that’s rolled up on itself and really tiny...maybe if you collide the particles at high enough energy, they could notice this really tiny distance scale, and you’d notice some effect on everything that’s coming out of those collisions. So, it is an area of interest and it might even reveal the answers to some of these other big mysteries we have in trying to explain the universe.
LESTER: So how do researchers get particles to higher energies so they can explore dark matter, unlock these mysteries of the universe, and potentially open a new window to parallel universes?
GILGREST: We don’t know about a portal through the base of a tree, we don’t konw about that. (LAUGHS) But there may be other portals at the LHC that we can reveal that such things exist.
LESTER: LHC is the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN global laboratory in Switzerland, which has been making big news since its debut in 2008. It’s the single-largest machine in the world and most powerful particle accelerator in history, responsible for finding the elusive Higgs boson particle. And you may be surprised to learn that the Energy Department plays a big role by building the incredibly specialized equipment needed to run some of the most complex particle physics experiments ever imagined.
GILGREST: There’s two major, large collider experiments at CERN, one called ATLAS and another one called CMS. Several of our labs are associated with ATLAS and the overall work is overseen from a project team that’s at Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island. CMS has one U.S. lab on it, that’s Fermilab. So the work of U.S. CMS is overseen by Fermilab.
LESTER: And how will Energy Department, National Lab and CERN scientists know when they’ve found the Upside Down, uhhh, I mean, extra dimensions?
GILGREST: If these extra dimensions exist, we’ll see deviations from the Standard Model, and if those deviations are consistent with what we expected for extra dimensions, that’s how we would make the discovery.
COOKE: If we discover one of the parallel universes as predicted in, say, string theory or some of the other models, it’s probably not as exciting as the parallel universe discovered in Stranger Things. You’re not going to walk through a tree and find the Upside Down and some monsters there. It’s something only particles at the some of highest energies are going to notice that we can’t. In a way, the universe already has these things, we just have yet to notice them so it can’t really change the way things happen every single day.
LESTER: So no monsters, no Barb, but if scientists discover extra dimensions, it could lead to some technologies and solutions that we can’t imagine. And this type of research won’t just lead to inventions in the far-off future, it’s having an impact on our lives today. The more scientists examine the secrets of strange things like dark matter, the more we understand its importance.
SIEGRIST: Without dark matter, people wouldn’t be here because dark matter helps the structure in the universe form. The galaxies wouldn’t form and then stars wouldn’t form, which is where the heavy elements like oxygen and carbon are made. Our existence depends on dark matter being out there.
COOKE: Particle physics research drives progress in science and industry that does improve your quality of life in lots of ways you might not expect. Modern medicine benefits from particle beams that enable developing new pharmaceuticals and radiation treatments for cancer. Detector technology lets medical imaging advance and provides screening for homeland security. Particle physicists developed the World Wide Web to share information quickly and effectively around the world and they continue to push frontiers in Big Data analysis.
LESTER: And Jim’s still holding out hope for one breakthrough in particular...
SIEGRIST: I just want my flying car! (LAUGHTER) Maybe understanding the extra dimensions will help us figure out how to make a flying car like we were supposed to get years ago, right? So we don’t know that but that’s what we hope for anyway.
LESTER: Before I left the Germantown campus, I wanted to get these incredibly smart and *not evil* scientists’ take on the show..
SIEGRIST: I wasn’t surprised the Energy Department were the bad guys! (LAUGHTER)
COOKE: I appreciated the storyline with all the kids, though. I really liked how Mike was curiosity-driven, just like a modern scientist. I see it as the same thing that drove me to be interested in science in the first place. Curious about the mysteries of the universe...how can I solve them? It was a lot of fun to see that scientific take in such a central character, trying to understand the strange things happening in his own universe.
LESTER: So there you have it, “Stranger Things” fans. Parallel universes could really be a thing, and the Energy Department is working to understand them. Just don’t ask us what REALLY happened to Eleven -- that’s top secret. Also, Hawkins National Laboratory isn’t real. Or is it? (...It isn’t.)
SOFT VOICE: (Whispered) Energy secrets.
DOZIER: How much do you know about Zachary Taylor? Maybe you know he was the 12th president of the United States, or that he died in office. His presidency lasted just over a year, from March 1849 until his untimely death in July 1850.
DOZIER: President Taylor fell ill after attending a sweltering Fourth of July celebration at the newly under-construction Washington Monument. Despite the best efforts of White House doctors, his condition worsened; within 5 days, he was dead.
DOZIER: That might have been the end of the story… but nearly 150 years later, a theory surfaced that Taylor’s death might have involved foul play. Bill Cabage, a science writer and public information officer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, filled me in.
CABAGE: OK, well, it was theorized, I think in the late 1980s, by someone that his sudden illness and death might have been as a result of arsenic poisoning.
DOZIER: Taylor’s presidency came in the years leading up to the Civil War, during a time of increasing national tension over slavery. Author Clara Rising, in her research for a book about Taylor, made the connection between his diagnosis of “acute gastroenteritis” and the effects of arsenic poisoning. Rising managed to persuade Taylor’s descendants AND the government to investigate her theory.
CABAGE: His body was actually exhumed so they could get tissue samples from him. And so they took these tissue samples, which I believe were hair and some fingernail, and they brought them to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where we have the High Flux Isotope Reactor... which we can do neutron analysis of materials with.
DOZIER: That was in 1991. Bill said he actually arrived at Oak Ridge around the same time as President Taylor’s remains.
CABAGE: I've been here for 27 years, and that was done just right when I came here.
DOZIER: Do you remember it?
CABAGE: Oh yeah, it was a big story for us. That was the beginning of my education about neutron science.
DOZIER: Basically, the way neutron analysis works is you take a sample -- like, say, a president’s fingernail -- and bombard it with neutrons from a uranium-fueled reactor. Different elements give off distinctive signatures when hit with this kind of radiation. That lets scientists pick out minute traces of substances, including arsenic.
DOZIER: So the nation -- including Bill, whose family may be distantly related to Taylor -- waited in suspense as Oak Ridge scientists put the High Flux Isotope Reactor to its highest-profile test: determining if America’s 12th president was, in fact, the nation’s first to be assassinated.
CABAGE: Two researchers, Frank Dyer and Larry Robinson, took this on and did the activation, and you get traces of anything in tissue. I think what they saw, they saw a little bit of arsenic but they didn't see nearly enough that would infer that he was poisoned by arsenic.
DOZIER: Their report said the arsenic levels in Taylor’s tissues would have had to be at least 200 times higher to indicate a potentially lethal dose.
DOZIER: So, that was it. On June 26, 1991, the Kentucky Medical Examiner ruled out poisoning -- with arsenic, at least -- as Taylor’s cause of death. His body was returned to the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.
DOZIER: Some news reports called the findings “anticlimactic.” I asked Bill about that.
CABAGE: Was anybody disappointed that he wasn’t poisoned? No, I don't think so. That's the thing about science -- you go in looking for something, and if you don't find it, that's a discovery just as much as if you do find it. You don't fail at science, you just learn.
DOZIER: The Taylor case may have been a strange one, but it’s just one of thousands of examples of how our National Labs help solve scientific mysteries of all shapes and sizes. And user facilities like the High Flux Isotope Reactor offer powerful tools that are open to anyone with a burning research question.
DOZIER: Oh, and there’s one more secret. You know those hair and fingernail trimmings from President Taylor? They’re still at Oak Ridge today...
SOFT VOICE: (Whispered) Energy secrets.
EDELMAN: Hi, I’m Simon Edelman, and much to my mother’s dismay I don’t have kids... yet. But to get ahead of the game and get the perspective of someone who deals with diapers on the daily, I headed down to Bright Horizons Childcare Development Center located here at the Energy Department.
(SOUND OF CHILDREN CRYING)
EDELMAN: These kids were noisy, but I was able to snag one of the infant teachers, Jessica Ferguson, and find out how many diapers she changes a day.
FERGUSON: Yeah. I change about 5 or 6 diapers a day.
EDELMAN: That’s six diapers per kid per day. There are 12 kids in the infant room. Which means 72 diapers per day and five days a week equals 360 diapers. That’s a lot of diapers. I’d say Jessica knows a thing or two about quality absorption in diapers.
FERGUSON: I didn’t really think about it too much before becoming a teacher, but now I’m kind of thankful. It really does make a difference.
EDELMAN: That difference for Jessica Ferguson is knowing these pampers are going to hold their liquid and not irritate the little ones’ skin. And for that, she can thank the fine folks at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
REDONDO: When you have a nuclear explosion. The amount of energy released is so large that essentially all of the materials that are in the immediacy of where the explosion occurs become fluid… liquid. And so, to understand the process after the explosion is initiated you need to understand how the materials around it are behaving and because they become fluid you have to do it with fluid dynamics to a large extent.
EDELMAN: That’s Antonio Redondo, a senior scientist at Los Alamos and former head of the Theoretical Division. What Antonio is referring to is computational fluid dynamics. 25 years ago while Los Alamos was working on securing our nuclear stockpile using fluid dynamics, Procter & Gamble approached them with a unique problem.
REDONDO: When you have a diaper and an infant pees, the liquid -- unless it’s absorbed by the material that is immediately touching the skin -- then it can irritate the skin. The materials they were making at the time were not sufficiently absorbing. In particular there was enough fluid close to the skin that the irritation problem was something that they were concerned about.
EDELMAN: In order to understand how to make a better diaper and control where the fluid goes, they needed to understand the flow in the fibrous material that they were using.
REDONDO: And in particular they wanted to know not only how the stuff flowed, but also what are the characteristics you have to have in this fibrous material to actually make it more efficient to hold the fluid next to the wrapper as opposed to near the skin. There were a number of conversations with the technical people at Procter & Gamble and they decided to fund the project to start the study of flow of fluids in these fibrous materials that they were making.
EDELMAN: Los Alamos got to work taking the morphology of the fibrous material that they had in their diapers and did calculations of the flow of fluids through that material -- in this case, water.
REDONDO: That resulted in what was basically a series of results that give you how the fluid is distributed, where does it go depending the on the density of fibers on the absorbing characteristics of the fibers. And so, the laboratory provided a series of characteristics that you have to have for the fluids to move over away from the skin. With that set of characteristics, Procter & Gamble could do experiments on their diapers by wetting them artificially and looking at where the water went.
EDELMAN: P&G’s machines move really fast -- like 100 miles per hour fast. So this data analysis helped them identify problems more quickly and shortened shut-down times. And by using software for statistical modeling and physics simulations, scientists optimized diaper manufacturing and design. They saved Procter & Gamble millions of dollars, all while building a dataset to validate and explain the software.
REDONDO: At one point, they told us that they had saved something on the order of about $10 million.
EDELMAN: Procter & Gamble could now make diapers cheaper and faster. But I needed to know. Did Antonio benefit from these cheaper diapers?
REDONDO: My children were already past the diapers when we did this. I didn’t use the diapers. I have done work in other things like for example, fabric enhancer and shampoo, which we do use.
EDELMAN: What’s more interesting is that the people that did the statistical analysis were also working on the weapons program for things like reliability. Oh, and there is one more secret that doesn’t get talked about. The work the National Lab System does in national security isn’t just defense.
REDONDO: We do these kinds of things because part of the mission of the lab is national security in a broad sense. So, economic security is part of the national security. We actually do a lot of work in the lab with industry because of issues of economic security. They’re what we call dual-use problems in which some of this stuff we’ve developed in the weapons programs can be used for that, but also vice-versa. Some of the characteristics of the flow of the fluid in the diapers is something that we hadn’t worked out here, and we had to work it out for helping P&G with their problem. And then the results we got from that were results that we can then bring back to the lab and use it for the national security mission of the laboratory.
EDELMAN: So there you have it. Los Alamos National Lab helps to protect things as big as our nation, and as small as a baby’s bottom.
(Baby cooing noise)
SOFT VOICE: (Whispered) Energy secrets.
(SOUNDS OF NATURE, BIRDS SINGING)
LANTERO: Near the southwest corner of Ohio sits a beautiful 1,050-acre wildlife preserve known as the Fernald Preserve. Visit in the warmer months and you’ll find lush greenery, bursting with life, ducks floating on ponds, hikers exploring seven miles of trails through forest, wetland, and prairie, birdwatchers peering out of a bird blind…
SUE SMILEY: We have a lot of bobcats, we have beavers, mink, weasel, red fox, lots of flying squirrels, coyote, deer, tons of birds -- this is a bird watcher’s paradise. (FADES OUT AS SHE CONTINUES TALKING)
LANTERO: That’s Sue Smiley, site manager at Fernald.
SMILEY: We also have some really cool amphibians and reptiles such as endangered salamanders and these great big soft-shelled turtles with pointy noses.
LANTERO: Beneath it all, a hidden legacy. In the 1950s through the late 1980s, this place was the site of low-level uranium production and machining, leaving behind contamination that made its way into the environment.
SMILEY: If you look at an aerial photo of the site, there’s all these open-water ponds, but they’re in kind of odd shapes, some of them look like squares. And it is because those are the areas where, as DOE was chasing the contamination, they were like literally digging down into the building foundations to make sure that the area was clean. And then those areas were intentionally left open like that, so that they would naturally fill with water and become part of the wetland system.
LANTERO: You might think that this is where the scary music starts and this turns into a shocking nightly news exposé. (SCARY MUSIC… record scratch?) But it’s not like that.
SMILEY: The soils were certified to meet U.S. EPA standards for the land use. So it’s safe for people to come here and use, basically, for recreational use. We get tons of bird watchers, lots of photographers, a lot of non-profits that reserve the community meeting room. We get a lot of bicycl-ers, too. Bicyclists? (laughs)
LANTERO: It’s not sinister. The Office of Legacy Management isn’t burying the Department of Energy’s history -- just the contaminants left behind. Everyone knows what happened here, and the community was very involved in the decision-making and cleanup process.
SMILEY: We collect and analyze environmental samples like groundwater, surface water. We are operating a pump and treat facility for the groundwater. That is an ongoing remedy. It’s working just fine. And we do have an on-site disposal facility that received a lot of the contaminated soils and some of the building demolition debris during the cleanup. So we have to maintain that facility as well.
LANTERO: That’s the whole point. Making sure everyone understands the process of evaluating, cleaning up and returning these sites to the American people. And in fact, this has already happened at 92 sites across the U.S. Much work remains to clean up the legacy of the Cold War and World War II, but there’s also been a lot of progress. Places like Fernald are proof of that.
SMILEY: The visitor center is a really neat building. It used to be the former warehouse, during the cleanup days. DOE redesigned that warehouse with the help of the University of Cincinnati. It’s absolutely beautiful. It opened in 2008, and by the end of this calendar year, we believe we will have had over 100,000 visitors to that facility.
LANTERO: Time passes, the waste stays in the disposal facility, and people and nature flourish there once again.
Life goes on.
SOFT VOICE: (Whispered) Energy secrets.
LANTERO: You can find lots more not-so-secret energy stories on our website, energy.gov/podcast.
DOZIER: If you have questions about this episode or any other episode you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet <@UNVERIFIED|@ENERGY>. If you’re enjoying Direct Current, help us spread the word! Tell your friends about the show, and leave us a rating or review on iTunes. We really appreciate your feedback.
LANTERO: Many thanks to the Duffer Brothers, Netflix, NPR, and Jim Siegrist and Michael Cooke with the Energy Department’s High Energy Physics Program.
DOZIER: Thanks to Jenny Woodbery and Bill Cabage at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Antonio Redondo and Nick Milan Njegomir at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
LANTERO: Thank you to Sue Smiley with the Office of Legacy Management, Jessica Ferguson at Bright Horizons, Shelley Laver at NNSA, and AnneMarie Horowitz.
DOZIER: Thanks as well to the folks at Transition Music, Bob Haus and the Energy Department Public Affairs team. Direct Current is produced by Simon Edelman, Allison Lantero and me, Matt Dozier. Art and design by Cort Kreer. With support from Paul Lester, Ernie Ambrose and Atiq Warraich.
LANTERO: We’re a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.
DOZIER: Thanks for listening.
SOFT VOICE: (Whispered) Energy secrets.