First Week at NIF

Hello World! Hope life has been treating you well.

During the first week they teach you quite a bit about the lab, especially the section you are working on. NIF, the laser I’m coding for, serves a few purposes. It helps research what the inside of stars are like, by simulating their plasma. It helps make sure the nuclear bombs the US has in storage are all in working order and don’t explode when being dismantled as per the NPT treaty. The dismantling bit is mostly an old function though since we’re not really doing that any more. It also helps conduct research on clean nuclear energy, which has been 30 years away for over half a century. Basically, whenever an experiment requires a gigantic laser, NIF comes to the rescue and obliterates whatever needs to be obliterated. There is a whole science to designing the targets, which contain whatever needs to be zapped, surrounded by stuff to analyze exactly how it was zapped.

Also, something I’m beginning to realize: NIF is a whole lot less militaristic than I first thought. If you look on the LLNL website, it talks a lot about how NIF is essential to national security, national competitiveness, etc, and goes into detail about the Stockpile Stewardship Program. But after learning a bit about what NIF actually does, it’s mostly pure science work with a slightly military bent. I went to a class on NIF target design, which is the science of designing the things that NIF will hit. The majority of the experiments that I heard about were non-military in nature. So suspect that the scientists sell NIF as a military tool in order to get funding from the government, which isn’t particularly interested in nucleosynthesis or the nature of exoplanets.

Peggy Carter
Peggy Carter would fit in so well at the lab. So would the Captain for that matter.

That is not to say, however, that LLNL is a purely scientific organization. Like I said in my last post, LLNL feels like it exists perennially in WWII, which is weird because it wasn’t built until the early 50s. I’ve never been in such a place that feels so quintessentially American. I keep waiting to see Captain America’s girlfriend walk by. There is a definite feeling that while science is important for its own sake the primary purpose of the science done there is to defend the country. Some of the interns don’t know the full extent of the project that they’re working on because it’s above their clearance level. People in the lab without citizenship are called “foreign nationals” and aren’t allowed to enter certain restricted areas, and when a class is taught at the lab they will specify whether foreign nationals are allowed. One of the members who works in cyber defense mentioned that the US was constantly under cyberattack by foreign enemies, and there is also danger that foreign intelligence agents are creating vulnerabilities where they didn’t exist before. Some younger workers are members of MARA or ROTC, and wear military uniforms. The only way to tell them apart from the guards is by age, and the fact that they are unarmed.

Due to the bureaucracy and the nature of setting up a coding environment on a new computer, I spend the majority of this week getting admin access to my computer, completing training videos, and downloading everything. I did get a bit of code done Friday however. Essentially, my job is to update the controls code. To my surprise, I’m actually working on all the controls code. Every single line of code that the scientists use to manipulate the laser, I am going to have access to. Thankfully, I probably will not have to change every line of code in the codebase, because that would take several years and far more skill than I have. What’s happening is that the codebase is being upgraded from Java 8, which was released in 2014, to Java 11, which was released in 2018. The code will have to be slightly different. My job is run the Java 8 code as Java 11 code, see what goes wrong, fix it, and write down what I fixed and changed. That document will then be looked at, and turned into tickets that the lab programmers will work on. I might work on some as well, if I finish in time.

This whole target is smaller than the tip of your finger

The classes offered at the lab are amazing. The class about NIF targets I attended described how the targets were designed, and what they were for. Essentially, the target is an extremely small, smooth sphere of some material that needs to be tested. That material is then put in these gold or uranium half cylinders, which hold it in place. On the edges are places silicon rings, which ensure heat is transferred evenly. There are other components as well, but those are the primary parts. The laser is shot through the thing, and the resulting beam is stronger than any other beam in existence, except the original NIF beam.

Another class I went to was about military cybersecurity. It was run by the military academy so nearly every one of the students in attendance was in military uniform. I’ve never seen so many short haircuts! Basically it was about what would happen if another country tried to wipe out one of the US power grids, similar to what happened in the Ukraine. Enough people are using solar panels that it’s actually become a problem, because the grid has much more power in the day than it does in the night. I could probably talk a bit more about it, but just to be on the safe side I won’t.

On Friday afternoon, there was a gathering for all the programming interns. We played ping-pong very competitively, and some of the players were skilled enough that they could probably beat some Google workers! I lost pretty badly though. I met a fourth year undergrad who is considering getting his PhD at UC Davis, and a second year who I met at a hackathon in Sacramento! I still can’t believe he recognized me from last year. We had a good time talking about LLNL and college, and it was nice to meet so many fellow programmers.

The workers at NIF are extremely nice to the interns. We are allowed to set our own hours, so long as they add up to 8 a day. Some days I come in at 7, some days at 10. I think I’ll end up setting a definitive scedule for myself eventually, but maybe not! Lyle, the coder who I am working the closest with, showed me where a safer bike rout was. I guess he didn’t want me getting run over and leaving the project to somebody else!

May you be ever victorious in your future endeavors!