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Saturday, May 24, 2014

TRANSITIONS: Part 10--Lawrence Livermore and Ames Research Center

At the University of Hawaii, which is similar to most universities, faculty members of departments only get paid for nine months, with this sum divided by twelve for your salary.  You can be satisfied with this amount, or, as is more probable, you scramble to try to get some type of paying job for two to three months.  While this opportunity to do whatever you want is one of the benefits of the position, the economic reality generally drives you to optimize your opportunities.

My 1976 position at NASA's Ames Research Laboratory was earned in 1974 when the resident futurist at the University of Hawaii, James Dator (right), and I were selected to run a summer workshop funded by NASA for mostly high school faculty.  Similar workshops were held at San Jose State University and San Diego State University.  

A group of faculty met to plan for the program, and I suggested a title:  Earth 2020.  The sub-title, "Visions for our Children's Children," came from the wife of the Director of the Ames Research Center, Hans Mark (leftwho went on to become President of the University of Texas).  This leadership team from the three universities was not only paid, but we were provided an attractive mandate to save planet earth, and were able to use a competitive process to select the very best teachers, some who later became legislators, university administrators and a president of a local university.  With the generous NASA funds, we then found the top ecological scholars of the those days to come to each university to give a public lecture at each city and work with the teachers to prepare curricula.  We were able to attend national and global conferences to personally contact them.  Among the lecturers were Garrett Hardin (rightTragedy of the Commons), Tom McCall (Governor of Oregon) and people with similar credentials.  The Neil Blaisdell Concert Hall experienced capacity crowds for these talks in the Summer of '76.

That effort linked me with the Ames leadership, primarily Jack Billingham (right) and Barney Oliver (of Hewlett-Packard), who previously led "The Next Billion Years," preparing a grand plan to Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence with Project Cyclops.  I was thus chosen to participate in a faculty summer workshop on The Orion Project at the Ames Research Center.  In many ways, we were challenged to do what the film Contact did twenty years later in 1997.  That film clip (click on it!!!) still gives me goose bumps.

1800 planets have now been found, but this was 1976, and the key question was:  Are we the only solar system in the Universe?  The first exoplanet was not confirmed until a dozen years later.  Thus, 25 engineering and science professors were tasked to design an instrument to detect an extrasolar planet using interferometry in the microwave.  A couple of us were given the chance to do something else more creative, so I devised a technique to directly measure this distant planet using a the optical spectrum, while measuring the atmospheric composition.

Over the years I've had perhaps a dozen postings on this subject, and in every one I've excoriated NASA for picking the wrong technique.  Someday, some high school student (this graphic to the right is merely a bunch of visualizations by middle school students) will use my principles and detect an Earth-sized planet around a star capable of supporting life.  Oh, my technique is also a lot cheaper.  What especially  galls me is that the next couple of billion dollars plus efforts of NASA will continue to knock their heads with indirect wobble and chancy transit schemes to find what we already know.  Almost forty years ago I proposed a direct method to also provide the atmospheric composition of extrasolar planets.

On 20July1976, when Viking I sent the first photo of Mars back to Earth, we were in the Ames theater with Carl Sagan to be the first to view, line by line, this potentially monumental shot.  What we initially saw...

...and to quote from Chapter 4 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity:

Who knows, maybe fuzzy Green Ladies could have shown up. I still remember Sagan pontificating as to why the color of Mars had a salmon-tinge, and commented so in fine scientific detail…except, well into his elocution, a technician sheepishly commented, “Dr. Sagan, we haven’t yet applied the correction filters.” That’s the only time I saw Sagan visibly embarrassed. It turned out that the addition of the filters did not change the salmon hue.

Five years later, when I was working the U.S. Senate, Sagan came to the U.S. Senate to seek funding for SETI.  Unfortunately, Senator William Proxmire had in 1979 given this NASA program a Golden Fleece Award.  So I arranged for Senator Matsunaga to meet with Proxmire, which worked, for he agreed not to stand in the way of the first budget for this effort.

Well, SETI funding came to an abrupt end in 1994, and private funds thereafter supported the SETI Institute:

So was this effort wasted?  Well, I still think it's a lot more sensible to spend hundreds of millions on SETI studies than tens of billions on various space hardware.  The numbers are overwhelming that alien life must exist somewhere up there, and the benefit of seeking signals for what could be the solution for peace or the Encyclopedia Galactica is worth a justifiable sum.  I see no value today in sending Man to Mars, or even back to the Moon.  The Cold War is over.  NASA is essentially obsolete, but the science must continue.

My assignments at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNR) derived from my PhD dissertation on tunable lasers.  My expertise was sufficient for LLNR to hire me for two summers.  Basically, the lab was transitioning away from magnetic confinement (which is the principle driving ITER in France today) to inertial confinement, or laser fusion.  

The incident I most remember had to do with an innocuous lecture on what I don't remember being  held next to another meeting chaired by Edward Teller on nuclear warheads.  I had Q-clearance, which allowed me some liberties, but many gatherings at Livermore required a higher clearance.  The checking process was lax, and I mistakenly entered the wrong room which was darkened, so the only thing you really saw was Teller doing all the talking.  Just a few minutes into this, it occurred to me that I did not belong.  So, do I carefully walk out, explaining my error, or do I hang around until the end and hope there is no exit check.  I had no idea what Teller was talking about anyway.  Turns out that people just walked out at the end.

Otherwise, I most remember Watergate on TV, the fact that I lived next to Wente Brothers, attending a concert by Patti Page, picking Bing Cherries, golfing at a temperature of 113 F and forays into San Francisco.  I also determined that the laser for laser fusion was not even close to being known, so felt that this energy option was beyond my lifetime.  More than a third of century later, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Livermore did extract more energy than was absorbed the fuel:

But if net positive means that the energy output divided by energy input is more than 1.0, this success cited above only resulted in a gain of 0.0077.  Anyway, as disappointing as laser fusion has been, While NIF only cost $3.5 billion, that other option, ITER...

will run past $20 billion and won't even attempt deuterium-tritium fusion until 2027.

So did I waste my time with SETI and laser fusion?  I asked myself a long time ago, what were the most promising future technological pathways for society.  While my involvement might have been premature,  I still believe SETI and laser fusion, or STARPOWER, were areas where my education and interest were best suited to make a contribution for Planet Earth and Humanity.

Next, after returning to the University of Hawaii after these summer experiences, my next transition is to the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C., where I helped pass the original legislation on wind power, ocean thermal energy conversion and hydrogen.

Hey, it's not hurricane season yet, but Amanda is in the East Pacific at 75 MPH, and will strengthen into a Category 3.  Yikes.  That's an ominous development so early.


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