Monday, November 18, 2019

Artificial intelligence can help stop nuclear proliferation

Guest column author Thom Mason,
Laboratory Director, LANL photo.    

The international nuclear arms control regime is approaching a critical juncture. If new nuclear weapons treaties are to be negotiated, ratified and enforced, they will need to be underpinned by strong technical monitoring capabilities. The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration is leveraging its expertise and technology to meet this challenge, understanding that in nuclear nonproliferation, you can’t verify what you can’t see.

The United States is placing renewed urgency on developing the science and technology required to monitor our adversaries’ nuclear activity — specifically by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and the unmatched, high-performance computing capabilities found at DOE’s national laboratories. DOE houses four of the world’s top 10 fastest supercomputers, including the top two, and we are already at work on developing three next-generation, exascale machines, able to conduct a billion billion calculations per second. Coupled with our advances in AI, those technologies will strengthen our nonproliferation efforts while helping to ensure that our own nuclear weapons stockpile remains safe, reliable and effective.

At Los Alamos National Laboratory, we are using AI to sift through data from an international network of sensors that look for underground seismic events that could indicate an illicit nuclear explosive test. With more than half a million seismic events worldwide each year, automated calculations are required to distinguish potential nuclear explosions from naturally occurring earthquakes. (Full story)

Precise proton beam takes aim at cancer

One of the biggest challenges in battling cancerous tumors is destroying all the cancer cells while protecting the healthy tissue surrounding the tumor. Removing a tumor surgically or treating it with radiation is a risky business, particularly when the tumor grows close to vital organs.

Proton therapy is a precise and highly accurate nonsurgical cancer treatment method. But the technique is only as good as the ability to accurately kill cancer tissue and spare the healthy tissue around it.

Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are advancing a technology known as proton radiography to increase the precision and accuracy of proton therapy. (Full story)

Boom times on the Hill need to be shared

Change is coming to Los Alamos National Laboratory — and it’s important that Northern New Mexico residents pay attention to what is happening on the Hill.

There is the nuclear laboratory’s evolving mission, with the lab expanding plutonium pit production for nuclear weapons. By 2026, LANL is being asked to build 30 pits a year; another 50 pits are supposed to be built at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Along with construction work — at a price tag in the billions, once the money is awarded and spent — LANL Director Thom Mason says the lab is hiring additional workers, about 1,000 a year for the foreseeable future. Of those, about half are new, with the remainder replacing retiring scientists and other lab workers. Mason called it the biggest increase in hiring in at least 30 years, and lab officials expect the jobs boom to continue at least through 2023.

And what does that mean to Northern New Mexico? Consider that this year, around $400 million in money spent for subcontractors has gone to New Mexico companies, also hiring because of the work. Over half the new lab hires, too, are from New Mexico, Mason said. (Full story)

Fluid dynamics provides insight into wildfire behavior

Stream traces of winds reaching the  left flank and head
of a simulated fire spreading up a steep slope.

The Kincade Fire has been burning through Sonoma County, California, displacing people from their homes and leaving destruction in its wake. It is a stark reminder of the increasingly pressing need for a better understanding of how fires begin and spread.

This is where Rodman Linn and his research come in. He develops and uses computational models of the coupled interaction between the wildfires and surrounding atmosphere at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In the November 2019 issue of Physics Today, Linn describes a few of the many ways that fluid dynamics controls the behavior of fires.

It's incorrect to view wildfires as advancing walls of flame, as they often are conceptualized. The movement and behavior of fires are far more complex.

"The buoyancy caused by the energy release of the fire itself interacts with the ambient winds to produce complex patterns of air movement that dictate the fire's behavior," said Linn, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Full story)

A Black Hole Threw a Star Out of the Milky Way Galaxy

An artist’s impression of the black hole at the center
of the Milky Way hurling a star called S5-HVS1 from
the galaxy’s Credit: James Josephides/Swinburne
Astronomy Productions, from NYT.

There are fastballs, and then there are cosmic fastballs. Now it seems that the strongest arm in our galaxy might belong to a supermassive black hole that lives smack in the middle of the Milky Way.

Astronomers recently discovered a star whizzing out of the center of our galaxy at the seriously blinding speed of four million miles an hour. The star, which goes by the typically inscrutable name S5-HVS1, is currently about 29,000 light-years from Earth, streaking through the Grus, or Crane, constellation in the southern sky. It is headed for the darkest, loneliest depths of intergalactic space.

The astronomers hypothesize that the runaway star was once part of a double-star system that came too close to the black hole. One of the pair fell in, and the other was sling-shotted away at hyper speed. The process, a three-body gravitational dance, was first predicted by Jack Hills, a theorist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in 1988. (Full story)