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Former Los Alamos director intertwines science, security

Stressing that significant international changes have impacted the United States' security needs, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory discussed Wednesday the increasing role science plays in U.S. defense and how the lab has responded to changing security threats.

John Browne, who began working at the lab in 1969 and retired as director in 1997, spoke to about 50 professors and students in the Physics Building. Browne received his Ph.D. from the University in 1969.

Ironically, the speech was originally scheduled to take place on Sept. 12, 2001. Now, after feeling the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks and facing pending nuclear threats with North Korea and Iraq, the issue of national security is more pertinent than ever.

Browne designed a slide show, and one of the first images he presented was the Yongyon nuclear facility in North Korea. He characterized the Koreans as "very strident" and said their threat is real but the imminency has yet to be determined.

"Other countries now possess weapons that in the past were only available to major powers," Browne said.

Because more nations are developing the technologies that were once limited only to a very few, the United States must respond quickly and aggressively.

"Significant improvements are absolutely essential to meet our security mandate," Browne said.

The Los Alamos lab's primary objective is to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons with applied and basic science. Scientists have been developing nuclear sensors, detectors and isotope identifiers as the first step to discovering weapons before they can strike Americans.

The lab has used Biological Aerosol Security and Information System deployments, for example, to detect anthrax since 1989. Although anthrax became a nationwide public concern after the Sept. 11 attacks, scientists at Los Alamos have in fact been studying strains in the United States and Russia that were present during the Cold War. More recently, the Lab has deployed BASIS at the summer 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City to detect any possible anthrax scares.

Because of the changing availability of technology, Browne called weapons of mass destruction "weapons of mass effect." Much of the world has access to technology that enables it to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the effects of such weapons are much more focused, he said. Chemical and biological weapons may not wipe out huge populations, for example, but their effects on another nation's economy may be more dramatic.

Today, Los Alamos has developed several computerized programs to help policy makers synthesize the information they have. "Genie" is a genetic algorithm that searches images such as a city or other landscape for certain characteristics. Browne demonstrated how the Genie program can use water to find a beach or how it can also be used to find a cave, such as where Osama bin Laden and members of the Taliban were once hiding.

Los Alamos also has created simulated models of entire populations, such as those in Dallas, Texas, or Portland, Maine. Those models simulate a day-in-the life of those cities, detailing how the people interact on a given day. The Department of Homeland Security can use these models to determine how quickly smallpox could spread should it infect the city. It gives them an idea of the consequences of smallpox on a population and what measures should be done to prevent its infection.

Browne made it evident that spread of technology to vast areas of the world poses increasing threats to the United States' security. In 2000, after Browne had stepped down as director, scientists had detected that several nuclear secrets were stolen from Los Alamos.

Scientists must continue to research and impart knowledge, Browne said, but even more importantly the policy makers must have the intuition to apply such knowledge to national protection. "Our government has the knowledge, but they also must be able to make the right decisions with that knowledge," Browne said.

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