THERE ARE PROBABLY more secrets inside Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) than any single square mile in Northern California.
One of them, ironically, isn’t one they try to keep: the existence of the lab’s Discovery Center.
In an outbuilding of approximately 1,110 square feet on the lab’s east side that is open to the public, the center functions as part classroom, part laboratory trophy room, showing off many of the lab’s accomplishments while explaining cutting-edge science to everyday people.
The Discovery Center re-opened Feb. 1, after nearly three years away for the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been part of the lab’s public face since it opened in 1976.
“The Discovery Center is our visitor center, to come and learn about the lab,” said Joanna Albala, the center’s director and the lab’s science education program manager. “They learn about the science and technology here at the lab, and we’ve just redone the whole programming.”
Like so many things about the lab, the Discovery Center packs a lot of punch.
At its heart is a half-size replica of the targeting dome at the lab’s National Ignition Facility (NIF), which just made worldwide news in December for achieving nuclear fusion for the first time in history.
Scientists shot 192 lasers at a target the size of a pencil eraser in NIF, achieving “energy breakeven,” meaning it produced more energy than was used in the effort. The first-of-its-kind breakthrough is considered a major step toward a net-zero carbon economy.
“By serendipity, it’s all about the National Ignition Facility,” Albala said. “It wasn’t really intentionally done that way, but at the same time, it’s the jewel in the crown of the science of the laboratory and also is a big part of the center.”
‘It’s one big room’
“This is the dome of where the targets go in for a shot,” said Albala, a scientist who was part of two teams that discovered two human genes while working on the Human Genome Project. “We did this replica of the target to be more realistic and so when students are coming to the center for these science field trips, we’re using props and items to describe how fusion works. They get to have some hands-on activities so they can better understand that type of science.”
While the dome is the most obvious part of the center, the history and some of the practical details of what the lab does is everywhere. It’s one big room, but a room in which someone can easily spend a couple of hours.
The center chronicles the lab’s own history (like the mammoth discovered during construction of the NIF during the 1990s), its discoveries and its role in world events, including the lab’s micropowered impulse radar used to find victims in the rubble of the World Trade Center in 2001, its improved technology to detect threats from space objects, and the work of its National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC).
“They were the only ones as far back as ’86 (during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) who were able to tell them downwind, ‘This is what your dose is going to be, you need to evacuate these areas,’” said Stephen Wampler, a senior public information officer at the lab. “They were able to help with Three Mile Island and they helped with Fukushima and they helped when Saddam Hussein lit the oil wells on fire in Iraq.”
There are displays dedicated to lab scientists and their groundbreaking work, interactive games, video displays of how things like 3D printing actually work. There are also displays on carbon capture, biotechnology, climate science, and on the lab’s work producing some of the world’s largest telescopic lenses, including one that’s eventually bound for the Vera C. Rubin observatory in Chile, scheduled to open in 2024.
“This is going to be the first time that a telescope will image more galaxies than there are people on earth,” Wampler said.
People should bring a phone, because there are plenty of QR codes for even more information. There are displays dedicated to the lab’s work on nuclear arms reduction monitoring, building the world’s largest supercomputers and a new exhibit tackling how lab scientists contributed to the fight against COVID-19, including finding new ways to build ventilators and 3D printing new testing swabs.
“They did it without using any of the materials in the regular ventilator supply chain because they didn’t want to affect the supply chain,” Wampler said. “They wanted everybody to be able to continue to produce those ventilators. They said ‘We’re going to use ideas and parts that will give us a ventilator but without taking them from other ventilation providers. So they essentially invented something.’”
Albala stressed that, despite the lab’s reputation for secrecy, it produces fountains of information of its work online. She runs a number of partner programs with and for local schools at both the lab and at schools and other local gathering spots for activities.
“When you’re the science education manager, everything you do is for the public and in community outreach and science education, so there’s so much science that you can learn about at the laboratory,” Albala said. “We have a YouTube channel, we have Facebook and Instagram and Twitter so there’s a lot of science and technology that’s available for public consumption. I would say a vast majority of the work that we do here you can learn about online.”
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Discovery Center is open noon to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.