The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


Fission, fusion, and a sense of place

When I moved to New Mexico in 2001, I satisfied a desire born fifteen years earlier. The pull started with my graduate work in physics, working toward the holy grail of controlled nuclear fusion. New Mexico had always been front and center in that effort.

The quest began in 1938, when scientists found that splitting (fission) of large atoms like uranium liberated enormous energy. The discovery occurred on the eve of World War II, and German scientists immediately saw that fission could provide a devastating weapon. In 1943 the U.S. government commandeered the site of the Los Alamos Ranch School, on the Pajarito Plateau, and created a lab to build an atomic bomb. Robert Oppenheimer had spent summers there, and he chose it as the development site due to its remoteness, but also due to the magic of the land, which he knew would help attract other scientists. In just two years Los Alamos produced the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war.

It was soon realized that a far more powerful weapon might be possible from the fusion of small atoms, such as hydrogen, into bigger ones. Fusion happens only in the heat of stars, but it was thought that a fission bomb might serve to ignite a fusion explosion. In 1949, the U.S.S.R. exploded a fission weapon, and a crash program began in the U.S. to build a hydrogen bomb. In 1952 a fusion device called "Mike" (not really a bomb, but a machine three stories tall) exploded in the South Pacific with the force of a thousand Hiroshimas. The island that it was on vanished, and the nuclear arms race was in full swing. In the following years scientists at Los Alamos and a new sister laboratory in Livermore, California, worked to make nuclear weapons ever more powerful, and small enough to be carried by an airplane, then a missile, then an artillery shell.

Nuclear fission was quickly harnessed to generate electricity, and once H-bombs were realized, the effort began to control fusion energy. The payoff would be huge—the fuel would be hydrogen, obtainable from seawater, and fusion would produce almost no radioactive waste. Elaborate experiments have produced small amounts of fusion energy, but the power generated has always been less than that used to drive the experiment. The quest for ignition (getting more power out than you put in) has been long and difficult.

While an H-bomb relies on the force of a fission explosion to compress the fuel, an approach called laser fusion uses enormous lasers to do this. The National Ignition Facility being built at Livermore will be the size of a football stadium, focusing 192 intense laser beams onto a BB-sized target of fuel. For a few billionths of a second the lasers will generate a thousand times more power than the rest of the U.S. combined. The hope is that NIF will produce the first controlled thermonuclear ignition; meanwhile, it will be used to model the behavior of nuclear weapons, the interiors of the sun and stars, and other extremes of temperature and pressure. Sandia National Lab, in Albuquerque, (begun in 1945 as a branch of Los Alamos) has pioneered a competing method using particle beams instead of lasers, and achieved a record for fusion energy production in 2003, using yet another device called a Z-pinch, which might yet beat NIF to ignition.

Today Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos National Laboratories each employ over seven thousand people, and the primary mission of all three is the maintenance of the nation's nuclear weapons. The stockpile has been sitting in missile silos for more years than planned, so experiments and computer simulations are being used to understand how well these aging weapons will work. New weapon designs are also studied, and some idealists who hoped to solve the world's energy problems have found themselves designing weapons instead. The brains and supercomputers at all three labs are also being applied to fields like biotech, manufacturing, climate modeling, and space science.

I began studying physics to change matter to energy, like alchemists creating gold from lead. My education was laced with tastes of New Mexico; visions of science were mixed with the mystical landscape, pure clear light, colors not seen elsewhere, spirituality. It was all here when I arrived—healers and air-force pilots, bomb designers and peace activists. The mixture is not really accidental. Oppenheimer's parents sent him to a paradise. When he started upon the creative project of his lifetime, he did it here. Perhaps the great power that allowed both the creativity and the destruction could only have been found in a place like this.

El Rinconcito español

Cuando el dinero habla, la verdad calla. = When money speaks, the truth is silent.

La memoria es como el mal amigo; cuando más falta te hace, te falla. = Memory is like a bad friend; when you need it most, it fails you.

No se puede pedir peras al olmo. = You can’t ask an elm tree for pears.

Submitted by SOS-panyol, Placitas—Spanish instruction that focuses on oral communication skills,

Stablein to perform Day of the Dead celebration

Writer, artist, and performer Marilyn Stablein will present her annual post-Halloween Day of the Dead celebration and performance of “Bardo Passages: Soul Journey to Tibet,” on Tuesday, November 1, at 7:00 p.m., at the Corrales Trading Post, 4409 Corrales Road, Corrales (just north of Wells Fargo Bank, on the west side. Look for the luminarias). Refreshments will be served.

The performance is a ritual celebration of All Hallow’s Eve, which inspires our present-day Halloween celebrations. Many cultures, including Celtic and Mexican, recognize the Day of the Dead.
A special Day of the Dead altar will be on view at the Corrales Trading Post through the month of October.

“Bardo Passages: Soul Journey to Tibet” is a ceremonial journey through the afterlife realms. According to Tibetan beliefs described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, after the soul escapes from the body at the moment of death, it travels for forty-nine days in a limbo between death and rebirth. During the journey, the soul encounters the Lord of Death, scary Bardo creatures, and visits the Hellish realms before exiting the Bardo and experiencing rebirth.

Doors will open at 6:00 p.m. Attendees are invited to bring memento mori or tokens and memorabilia of loved ones who have passed beyond to place on a special memorial shrine for the duration of the evening’s performance. Donations will be accepted.

Stablein is the author of seven books, most recently Sleeping in Caves: A Sixties Himalayan Memoir (Monkfish Book Publishing Company), based on the seven years she lived in India and Nepal. Excerpts from her book will be incorporated into the performance, and copies of the book will be available.
For more information, contact Marilyn Stablein, at 897-1456 or

Historian speaks on El Camino Real

A PowerPoint presentation by Harry C. Myers, showing the route of the historic El Camino Real through Albuquerque and the surrounding area, will be held on Sunday, November 13, at Coronado State Monument, at 2:00 p.m.

Myers is the team leader for the Long Walk National Historic Trail Feasibility Study, involving the Navajo Nation and the Mescalero Apache Tribe. He previously was superintendent of Fort Union National Monument and is the author of numerous articles on the Santa Fe Trail. His talk will cover the various routes of exploration through this area and show why trails, roads, and highways follow much the same alignments as Coronado's expedition.

Reservations are required, as space is limited. Please call Katherine, at 867-6115. Admission is $5 per person, free to members of the Friends of Coronado State Monument.
Coronado State Monument is off I-25, Exit 242, west of the town of Bernalillo.

Ranger Station to hold drum-making demo, discussion of Pueblo Revolt

Gabe Trujillo, of Cochiti Pueblo, who has been making drums for thirty-three years, will demonstrate his art on October 29, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., at the Tijeras Ranger Station.

On November 5, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., Dr. Stefanie Beninato, a public historian, will discuss the rebellions against Spanish authority, especially the story of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, one of the most successful rebellions against Spanish authority anywhere in the world. Beninato will explore the many questions surrounding this revolt. Was there native leadership in the revolt? Was there only one leader of the Pueblo Revolt? Could only a mulatto have led this successful rebellion, as postulated decades ago?

Both programs will be held at the Sandia Ranger Station in Tijeras. For additional information, you may call 281-3304.

Las Cruces again named a top retirement spot

Money magazine has named Las Cruces again as one of the best places to retire. In the November issue, Las Cruces is among five U.S. cities named as Best College Towns to Retire. The article cites several factors for the ranking, including great weather, amazing views, New Mexico State University, local health-care facilities, cultural scene, and hospitality.

The article cites inexpensive housing as another reason why Las Cruces was considered, saying “prices have stayed modest; new houses start around $200,000, while existing stock usually costs less.” The warm Las Cruces climate, with three hundred days of sunshine a year, was also an important factor.

Las Cruces was ranked by Money as one of the Best Places to Retire in 2002, when it was also ranked by the Forbes/Milken Institute as the Best Small Metro Area for Business and Careers.

Discovering seismosaurus

“Jan, come see what you make of this.” Arthur, in his typical understated way, was telling me that he had found some large dinosaur bones. This was the beginning of a long and convoluted series of events that resulted in this dinosaur becoming the superstar of a 2002 Tokyo exhibit of the bones of the world’s largest dinosaurs. The following is how it all started.

In 1976 Congress directed the Bureau of Land Management to select from its four thousand or more acres of roadless lands, those which might be suitable for addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Relatively soon thereafter, the BLM in New Mexico released a list and map of possible wilderness study areas in the state. Frank Walker, Arthur Loy, and I explored several of these, including one near San Ysidro named Ojito (Frank had hiked in the area since 1949, and introduced it to me in 1965). Early in the selection process, the Ojito was ruled out for wilderness consideration, not only by the BLM but by the local wilderness advocates (because as dramatic and picturesque as it is, it contains no rivers or lakes).

In 1979, while exploring the Ojito alone, I came upon some distinct petroglyphs atop a small mesa. I thought their presence might help with our plan to revive the Ojito’s candidacy for wilderness protection.

Soon after, Arthur, an excellent photographer, accompanied me on a hike to the petroglyphs so that he could record them. It was while paralleling me (our usual way of exploring) about fifty feet below the mesa edge that he called out. While walking toward him, I instantly recognized from thirty feet the obvious vertebrae of a large dinosaur. The articulated vertebral column looked like a huge chicken neck lying half in and half out of sandstone. Right off it seemed likely that the vertebrae were from a saurapod about the size of Diplodocus. It was my impression that there were lot of these giants in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming, so I didn’t think it unique, although I knew from all my years of hiking in New Mexico that this was a rare find (Arthur told me that he had never found even a piece of dinosaur bone before).

Now what to do about the discovery? I remember kidding Arthur, “I’m sure glad it’s your responsibility, since you found it.” Little did we know how all this would play out, and what a monster Arthur had created. Within a week we took Frank to the site. The three of us determined to reveal the discovery only to friends until we decided upon the appropriate paleontologist to study it (we each had had previous discouraging experiences with revealing scientific discoveries to museums and universities). We were not in any hurry, as we wanted to be assured that “the dinosaur” (as we so imaginatively called it) would be excavated under the best scientific principles.

But in 1980, when we presented our case for the Ojito to the BLM, we felt that we should include slides of the dinosaur to strengthen the cause for wilderness protection. At that meeting, Keith Rigby, the resident BLM paleontologist, was called into the room to view the pictures of the fossilized bones. He instantly recognized their importance. Because of that meeting, the Ojito was back on the map for wilderness study. But in the process of promoting the Ojito we had prematurely revealed the existence of the dinosaur.

Of course Rigby wanted to see the bones in situ as soon as possible. Shortly after we showed him the site he left for a teaching position at Notre Dame and the dinosaur was apparently forgotten except by the three of us and our friends. Over the next few years scores of our friends were taken to the site individually or in groups, in an informal way. Remarkably, no bones were moved from their original position at any time. Bill Norlander, a friend and television-news expert, did a thorough job of videotaping the bones and environs.

By spring 1985 illegal activities in the Ojito WSA were encroaching upon the site. Woodcutters’ roads and dirt-bike trails were getting closer and closer. We became ever more nervous. Frank, who had made the acquaintance of Jon Callender, the director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, on a raft trip, told him of our concern. Arrangements were made for us “discoverers,” Dennis Umshler, BLM paleontology coordinator, and Dave Gillette, a paleontologist at the museum, to visit the site and decide what should be done.
Within a week of our field trip, a video of the dinosaur appeared on the evening news! One of our fears over the previous six years had been quickly realized. When we reexamined the site we found it covered with human footprints of all sizes.

Excavation was put on the fast track by the BLM and the museum. Removal of the naturally revealed bones was accomplished quickly, with Bill Norlander again recording the scene via video documentation.

Gillette named the dinosaur “seismosaurus,” and it was soon internationally renowned (as the “world’s longest dinosaur”), later to be published from professional papers to children’s books. Much contention and dissension occurred among the BLM, excavators, and wilderness advocates over the years, but by 2002, in the main, science had prevailed over politics (see note below).

Note: Dave Gillette asked the BLM and congressmen in Washington, D.C., to have the Ojito dropped from wilderness consideration so that roads could be created in it should any articulated dinosaur bones be found. The wilderness community opposed this. Also, there was friction within the BLM over this issue; and personalities clashed at the museum, mostly concerning interpretation, promotion, and authority over seismosaurus.





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