Terry C. Wallace, Jr.
Director Emeritus, Los Alamos National Laboratory
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
May 3, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Tuesday, May 3, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Dr. Terry C. Wallace, Jr. Terry, it's great to be with you. Thanks so much for joining me today.
TERRY WALLACE, JR.: It's great to be here also.
ZIERLER: To start, would you tell me your current or most recent title and institutional affiliation?
WALLACE: Sure. I was the 11th Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, something I was very proud of because I'm a Los Alamos native, and being able to be involved in the iconic laboratory matches the pride I feel from being able to go to an iconic institution like Caltech. I retired this last year, and so I'm Director Emeritus, happily working on lots of writing projects and occasionally kibitzing on various scientific aspects of some national security work.
ZIERLER: Being in Washington right now, tell me about some of your consulting work in the science world.
WALLACE: To tell the truth, I'm really blessed that I have a very broad background, and while I am a seismologist, a lot of people want me to do things related to national security, for example, how geophysical and meteorological sensors can tell you about human activities. But I also have a pretty broad background in geology in general, and in particular, mineralogy. Most of my consulting, in the last six or seven months has been associated with people inquiring about very specific questions in mineralogy, planetology, cosmology, and the construction of our solar system, which is quite delightful for me to be able to work on at this point in my life.
ZIERLER: Tell me about stepping down from Los Alamos right in the middle of the pandemic, what some of the challenges were in the timing of that decision.
WALLACE: The timing of the decision really is driven by the government. In the early part of this millennia, the government decided that management of all the national labs would be re-competed, meaning that they would move away from a single model for federally funded research and development sites to an open competition where consortium of companies and universities proposed teams to manage the labs. Usually, universities plus private companies would come in as special limited liability companies. I was part of the first competition that took place at Los Alamos. We took over the operating contract of Los Alamos with a LLC that was known as Los Alamos National Security in 2006, and I became Director of Science at the Laboratory, then Director of Global Security, then finally became the 11th Director. In the next competition in 2018 for the management of Los Alamos the previous consortium did not win, so that precipitated me stepping down, although the new LLC asked me to stay on, in particular, to work on some intelligence problems. But the world changed very much in 2019. Much of the work I did was in intelligence, and it really has to be face-to-face, and in this particular environment it was challenging. The Covid pandemic moved us to this incredible electronic world of Zoom, or in Los Alamos's case, Webex. And it's really interesting, although not necessarily is a good way. I led several large mentoring groups and I think that our human evolution of the last 75,000 years makes human contact an essential way we communicate. We're still groping through what it means to rely on electrons to both express empathy and surprise.
ZIERLER: Speaking, of course, only in your capacity as a private citizen, going nowhere near any sensitive issues, right now, we seem to be on the verge of a new Cold War. What do you think the impact of this is going to be on the national laboratories, given their import in national policy and security during what might be considered the First Cold War, now?
WALLACE: I think it's going to have tremendous impact. The questions that come back may seem, in some ways, to be horrific policy questions, but there are a lot of other science questions that are around it. Los Alamos National Laboratory was responsible for the first atomic bomb. And we've certainly built the largest part of the US nuclear deterrent, and the laboratory director was responsible for certifying that the US nuclear stockpile is safe, secure, and reliable. But what we're really worried about now is the asymmetry that came from a Cold War. We wanted the world to see nuclear weapons as something so horrific, which they are, that no one would ever talk about using them. We moved away from the idea of a small nuclear weapon which we would call tactical nukes, for example, and we're poised today for Russia routinely talking about using exactly this type of nuclear weapon. From a war-fighting perspective the use of a small nuclear weapon, which probably has a relatively small amount of fallout would provide some advantage. Nevertheless this a threat to the whole of humanity - a reminder that nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time, could completely wipe out the entire planet.
And there are a whole bunch of issues around that. What does it really mean for nuclear weapons to be small? But also, can you decide to make those? I'm not saying that we should do that, but I'm saying that's the kind of question we now are addressing. In addition, of course, the national labs have always been involved in trying to understand the other sort of weapons of mass destruction you'd expect to see on a battlefield. We just came through COVID, and there was always this kind of mystery around COVID. Was it related to an escape from a laboratory that was working on a potential bioweapon? Well, what we have to really worry about right now is whether a bioweapon will be used on a battlefield. A bioweapon can be as benign as influenza, making everybody sick so they're not particularly productive. We've always worried about that in the US. But it could be much worse in the present conflict in the Ukraine. Chemical weapons are the same. We know that Russia, in its support of Assad in Syria, routinely was involved in chemical weapons. How do you ameliorate this? How do you provide the forensic evidence that these things really happened?
These kinds of questions are pretty germane right now. The Laboratory has often worked on things we'll never talk about, and it doesn't have anything to do with nuclear weapons, but they do support US national security imperatives, and they can be everything from a new material to being able to understand how to ensure secure communications. There are very important discussions that are going on, and we're trying to understand what is next – how is science and technology going to change the calculus? These are the kinds of questions going forward that the labs are tasked with. Frankly, this is a frightening time that may portend not just a Cold War, but maybe a very different world. We've gone from sort of being a lone superpower to maybe talking about bipolar, but maybe it's multipolar world and even trying to understand what it means to be a US citizen, even, in that world. And how you support that is actually a really rich science and technology question.
ZIERLER: Some broad-based questions related to your directorship at Los Alamos. What were the most important science missions happening at the Laboratory during your directorship? What kind of research did you want to foster?
WALLACE: My particular interest, but also what I contributed there, has always been on the intelligence side. And so, historically Los Alamos received its first intelligence mission in 1944, and it was whether the Nazis had an atomic bomb, or how close they were to developing one. Louis Alvarez was here and developed the first xenon krypton detector that could be flown and collect gases that are a signature of nuclear fission. That mission space of nuclear forensics extended through time, and it was front and center when I was director and senior intelligence official. But the breadth of the science questions expanded dramatically. The question would be, how secure is an electronic grid? What do you need to do to secure it? How can you use the electronic grid as an intelligence gathering device? Every time you turn on your computer, someone could probably tell that you were doing that simply by looking at the flicker on the powerline -- every computer has a particular kind of signature. We were very involved in developing large-scale modeling and simulation tools that do things for the pandemic, so we were a leader in pandemic research in terms of providing both kind of simulations on what to expect, but also on computer-aided development of vaccines and therapeutics.
In fact, one of my close colleagues was also a Caltech grad, Bette Korber, one of the world's leading experts in HIV, and she became extremely important in understanding mutations within the SARS-2 virus and what it could mean for a vaccine campaign. Also, one of the big things that's really important for Los Alamos to contribute to is materials science. We've had and continue to have a really large effort in understanding, for example, something like graphene. A really marvelous material, right? But what can you do that has an impact on a national scale, perhaps from an energy security perspective or maybe from a communication perspective? There's a lot of research in new materials, in particular, trying to understand things like superconductivity or new generation of batteries. We've known, at least at Los Alamos, certainly for 15 years that lithium was not an answer to long-term battery storage. Can you add sulfur to the lithium? Can you do something to make the battery much more reliable long term? There's a lot of effort in those kinds of things also.
ZIERLER: I'm curious, by the time you became director, had the shadow of the Wen Ho Lee scandal faded by that point? Was it still felt? Were security practices that arose as a result of that still in place by the time you became director?
WALLACE: You'd have to examine the Wen Ho Lee incident from soup to nuts to really understand its long-term impact. Wen Ho Lee, as a national security issue, is set in Los Alamos, the end of the Cold War was coming into focus. In 1992, when President Bush agreed to have a testing moratorium, and there was a new US president coming in, and there was a discussion that maybe the laboratories should be paying a peace dividend, it was a tumultuous time. Is there a mission for a strategic deterrent with the fall of the Soviet Union, and what about the other things going on at the lab? In the mid 1990s Los Alamos saw a significant drop in employment and budget. Then, on top of all that, as this kind of chaotic mix is going on, we have the story of an employee that may have inappropriately given material to the People's Republic of China. That investigation was very, very serious, but it had to be looked at in terms of this whole impact of what the national labs are all about.
Are the Labs really about national security, or are they just academics in the end? I think that the normal, really appreciative handshake between the way Los Alamos works and how counter-espionage investigations from the FBI work was broken. This breaking actually caused huge implications at Los Alamos that are still felt today. Mistrust of whether scientist and engineers could be working on the most sensitive topics and whether an FBI would to some kind of standard was damaged. But at the same time, it was part of this landmark national change – with the end of the cold war there were some serious questions. Why we had national labs, why we do these kinds of things. Certainly, by the time I was director, Wen Ho Lee had faded in the sense of the person, but not necessarily in terms of the scrutiny on scientist and engineers doing national security. There was another aspect to the Wen Ho Lee story. Of course, it got caught up in the whole issue of a large number of incredibly talented scientists who came to the United States from the People's Republic of China. And many of them chose to stay. That was the standard thing at the end of the last century. When Chinese students left China in the 80s and 90s, in particular, many of them chose to become US citizens. But there was the sense, "Can we trust a person who comes from another country? Are they completely an American when it comes to national security?" I think the question is probably a bit facetious when I say it that way, but it has cast that shadow. We were the first lab where a person with a strong connection to another country which became an adversary – that was back in 1944 with Karl Fuchs working on the Manhattan Project and supplied the details of the atomic bomb to the Soviets, so 50 years later even though it was a Taiwan connection with a LANL scientist, there was a constant question of, who do you trust? And we're certainly really still struggling, as with all academic institutions do with this right now. What does it mean? The director of the FBI just three weeks ago said that China is our biggest adversary for espionage. Unfortunately, that word China sometimes gets translated to particular people rather than to a country.
ZIERLER: In what ways do you remain connected in your emeritus status to the Laboratory?
WALLACE: I have a couple things I continue to work on that are on the intelligence side. Some of that's been co-opted recently because I've been asked to work on a few other things that have to do with our present world situation. I also have several groups I'm working to mentor. I work with these groups on things like "What does it mean when you're a scientist at Los Alamos?" It's trivial to say that, but the fact of the matter is that our science heritage and the importance of excellence in science is extremely important in Los Alamos, but it's not the same as being a professor at Caltech, for example, in that you're going to be asked to do a lot of research, but we're also really going to be careful about what you can publish. Often, the expectation of a young staff member at Los Alamos is that it's somewhat like a university but with high fences. And it's actually quite different. I spent a lot of time actually trying to mentor what we do, why it's important, how a scientist or engineer can be a very successful and have a meaningful career.
ZIERLER: For you, going all the way back to the beginning, Los Alamos has been a family business for quite some time. Tell me about your connections going all the way back to childhood.
WALLACE: My father was put through school by the ROTC way back in the 50s, and he got his Ph.D. at Iowa State at Ames. He was a uranium chemist, and Los Alamos became our home. I actually grew up in Los Alamos when it was a closed city. As a youth I didn't know growing up in Los Alamos was any different than some other town in America, and to be perfectly honest I thought things everywhere else were kind of strange. In our city, we had to go through a gate. Then, later on, in Los Alamos, we were a federal reservation, so we were on daylight saves time in 1959, and the rest of New Mexico wasn't. As a young child, that's incredibly painful because all the television shows are at the wrong time, and you know the guy living just across the mesa has a different bedtime than you do. But on the other hand, the opportunities that come from such a unique community are kind of are extraordinary. Not until you really leave and go somewhere else do you have any idea how fortunate you are. I had a differential equations class in high school because a Laboratory scientist was willing to teach something like that.
In those days long ago we didn't have advanced placement in High School. But if some scientist wanted to teach differential equations at the high school the teen agers benefited greatly - so we got a chance to do a whole lot of things like that. We referred to Los Alamos as being on the world's longest cul-de-sac. It was built for secure reasons, but it also gave you a tremendous opportunity to be in the wilderness, and in fact the town sits on the flanks the first declared super volcano, the Jemez Caldera. That's part of the mix of being from Los Alamos. It's a great place, great opportunity, wonderful climate. But not until you leave do you really understand that. Later in life, when I hired people, I could often tell in a relatively short amount of time whether they were actually going to be successful or enjoy Los Alamos. We have the world's greatest ultra running community. Many people who are really successful in Los Alamos love the outdoors, love to run ultra races, love to ski. We have our own ski hill five minutes from downtown. Never snows anymore because of climate change, but nevertheless, we have all these kinds of things. There is a personality at Los Alamos that remains even today. It's distinctly different than Livermore, for example, and I find that really interesting, and it tells you something about the people there. The opportunities that are there are framing. They're an important part of making you who you become.
ZIERLER: Was your father engaged in classified work? Was he able to talk about his career at all when you were a kid?
WALLACE: Yeah, he was engaged in classified work. I think his group was the first group that actually built a line which refined and collected tritium, and that's an important part of the modern nuclear arsenal. But it was still different. My father was a very generous and quiet man. I could actually go to his work sometimes, which is bizarre when you think about modern security and nuclear safety. I did my first x-ray on a mineral when I was a junior in high school. New Mexico is all things nuclear. It's got the Laboratory, the Waste disposal site, WIPP, down by Carlsbad, but it also was the largest producer of uranium in the world during 60s and 70s. Some of the largest of Uranium mines were by Grants, New Mexico, in particular, one called the Jackpile Mine. And my father, being the uranium specialist, got this call one afternoon, "We've got something that we don't quite know what it is." My father made arrangements to get the material sent to the lab, and he said to me, "Why don't you work on this? It's about time you learned how to do an x-ray." That's only a Los Alamos kind of thing to be told it is about time for you to do your first x-ray.
When you did an x-ray on a material, and at that time, you'd compare it to films of all these other X-rayed materials. I'm out there working on this mystery material, and I'm very studious about doing this just right. And the x-ray I produced matched a thing called coffinite. I look up what coffinite is, and it's very radioactive. My father knew it was probably coffinite, but I was taken aback thinking the name of mineral meant I was going to die. Turns out it's named after a mineralogist named Coffin, so it's not nearly as bad as thinking about being six feet under.
But being able to interact with him in the science was spectacular and life forming. But it's not just him, all the neighbors were the same. Again, I don't know what it would be to grow up somewhere else, but if you had any question, you explored it. My life was experimenting. I got in trouble because my father taught us how to make frozen Crisco balls that you could light on fire, make slingshots, and shoot them high into the sky following perfect parabolas. I lit the neighbor's hay field on fire by accident. But I was the norm, not the exception. An entire generation of youths were like me.
ZIERLER: In the late 60s and early 70s, was Los Alamos more conservative? Did it see anti-war protests and things like that?
WALLACE: It was more conservative. I can remember certainly in 1968 when the decision before the nation was to decide what to do about Vietnam, and that election was incredibly contentious. There were protests, as I can remember, in school, but they were mild. In 1972, I was in high school, and in our social studies class we ran a school-wide mock election. I was one of the election-monitoring officials. The entire school got to vote, all the kids. My social studies teacher, a woman named Mrs. Williams, was very liberal, and Nixon won by 12 votes in the high school. Just watching this interaction after the mock election was a microcosm of the country. You don't understand this until you get to look back on it. But it obviously was much more conservative than anywhere else, as you can imagine, but the reasons were different. The reason was, "If we don't elect Nixon, we're going to go to war with China," which was the discussion at that time, and of course, China got opened up to the world at the time. On the other hand, Earth Day was a big deal in Los Alamos.
And that was quite the meaningful discussion – as a science community the concept of Earth and even environmentalism was obvious. It's a special place, but it was a former military reservation also which cast the pall of national imperative. When I grew up as a Boy Scout, we didn't collect aluminum cans to raise money. We went to Bio Canyon, a canyon on the north side of town, and collected depleted uranium ordnance that had been shot into the mountain, and we dug it out. By weight, you get a lot more money by digging up depleted uranium ordnance than you can aluminum cans. But there was also the feeling that you should be doing this to clean up the waste. It's hard to say just conservative or liberal. My mother was the legislator that represented the Los Alamos area in New Mexico's House for 22 years. She was a Republican, but they tried to primary her all the time because she wasn't conservative enough. It was a mix, in that sense.
ZIERLER: In going to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, is that to say that even in high school, you had interests veering toward geology and geophysics?
WALLACE: I think so. I was either going to be a physicist and mathematician or geophysicist, and it wasn't clear because I wanted to do all of them. And I wanted to go to Caltech as an undergraduate. But I was the oldest of five children, and my parents said, "You can go there for graduate school. That's the place to go for graduate school. Let's stay in-state. You can help us on some other things." I was disappointed at first, but it turned out to be the best decision I could've made and it certainly resulted in me being well-prepared for Caltech. When I went down to Socorro in the southern part of the state, and I interviewed with a professor to see if I could work in his lab. This professor, who happened to be a Caltech graduate named Allan Sanford. He was from the Seismo Lab. And I said, "I think I'd like to be a geophysicist." He said, "Why?" I said, "Because I really like physics, and I like math, and geology's really interesting." He said, "No, it sounds like you don't really know what you want to do." I ended up getting all those degrees just to show him. But it was, a small place, not unlike Caltech, in which the focus is technology and science, and it gave me the chance to do that. Also, I got to be outdoors. It's in the middle of nowhere, and there's a strong mining heritage. You could actually go to the hardware store, buy dynamite, and store it under your dorm bed, which probably is not a great thing. But you could go collect minerals. I made money to supplement my time at New Mexico Tech doing that. I'm really, really fortunate that I got all these things together even though at the time, I couldn't recognize the thread of serendipity.
ZIERLER: For the graduating class, I'm curious if you have a sense what the rough breakdown was, students who went on into industry and those who went into graduate school.
WALLACE: I know that in my graduating class at New Mexico Tech today, 60% have an advanced degree. But the emphasis at New Mexico Tech, being things Earth, or physics, or petroleum, most of my colleagues, when they first graduated, went to work for extraction or geological things writ large, whether it be hydrology and so on, and many of them went back to school afterwards.
ZIERLER: For you, was it always going to be Caltech for graduate school? Was that the plan from the beginning?
WALLACE: Absolutely. Although, I applied to a bunch of different schools because you're always worried that somehow, you won't measure up, right? But I was really fortunate. Again, like I said, I had my advisor, who I was close to, Al Sanford. I told him I really wanted to go to Caltech, and he told me some of the ins and outs to do that. And then, you get this letter, a letter welcoming you to Caltech, and you're all happy. But the day I showed up at Caltech in the summer of '78, within an hour, in my little cubby hole of an office, while they were trying to figure out where we were going to be in South Mudd, Clarence Allen showed up, a spectacularly famous professor. My advisor had called him and said, "This guy's coming. Could you look out for him?" They'd been colleagues. I developed a fantastic relationship with Clarence because of that, and there was no looking back.
ZIERLER: As an undergraduate, I wonder if you were following all of the revolutions that were happening in seismology at that point, if you were aware of the debates about plate tectonics and earthquake prediction.
WALLACE: It was certainly a spectacular time. At New Mexico Tech, I took a class called plate tectonics by Kent Condie, one of the first guys to do that. And it was great. But it took me being a graduate student to understand that a framing paradigm like plate tectonics was an attempt to explain everything. And what a remarkable thing. It was a revolution. When I was an undergraduate focusing on seismology, math, and so on, it was interesting. And earthquakes were interesting. But they were, in some ways, individual things. They were isolated disciplines and not part of a theory to explain everything, earth. I could feel it, but not really. But the day you walk into the Seismo Lab, and you go to a coffee hour and you suddenly realize that from the center of the core to the edge of the solar system is all a framed paradigm that was being discussed at that time. There was not a day that I didn't feel excitement once I got to Caltech. I wish I would've maybe felt that when I was an undergraduate. There is no other time in earth science like the late 70s to 1990, in which everything was there to be explained, from what the core was made of, to where uranium was, to why earthquakes happened, to basic isotope geochemistry. Can we actually see where we came from in the stars? And it was all about one theory. What a spectacular time.
ZIERLER: Being a triple major as an undergraduate, how well-formed were your ideas coming to the Seismo Lab about what you wanted to specialize in? Or were you wide open?
WALLACE: I think that's a good question. I knew I wanted to do seismology, but at that time, and I believe it's probably still the same process, for graduate school, you had to work with multiple professors and then defend these kinds of mini-thesis propositions. You were forced to work with different people. The first person I worked with was a guy named Bernard Minster, who'd gotten his degree at Caltech and stayed on. And his question was, when I look at a map, I see more left-handed transform faults than right-handed. "You need to tell me why." I'm like, "What?" But it allowed me to do all of my background. I got to do statistical and hypothesis testing, then I got to think, from the standpoint of geology, how do we really identify features? Are we missing something? Is there a gap there? Then, you think about the seismology. You have a certain kind of earthquake, strike slip earthquakes, out under the ocean where you can't observe them. Having all that, suddenly, things which I thought were fun all became coordinated, and that was really great. The reason seismology was at Caltech was because they had earthquakes in California, right? But after the big earthquake in 1952 in the eastern Mojave, it kind of died. It was kind of a science that people weren't really sure was really important.
Then, there was the Alaskan earthquake in 1964, then finally, 1971, you had San Fernando. But nothing happens after San Fernando. In 1978, there was a little earthquake in Santa Barbara. That was my second proposition, to model the seismic waveforms from that event. I got to be able to do that, too, and I really enjoyed that. I didn't really care that much about the results of what the earthquake looked like, but being able to exercise basically a theoretical problem and develop an inversion procedure was something fantastic. Then, my last proposition was actually mineral-related. I got to work with people in the other parts of the department. It was great. It was really fun. Now, defending those propositions in front of your peers, not the professors, was an extraordinarily stressful time, but in hindsight it was great.
ZIERLER: Of course, this was after your time, but did you feel any generational connectedness to the old Seismo Lab, the mansion in the hills? Would you hear stories? Did you have a sense about it?
WALLACE: We still had that San Rafael building when I was first got there, and we still went up to read records. There were these stacks of seismic records that had come from all around the world. If you had ordered a seismogram for the Alaskan earthquake, it was stored up there. You could feel history in the building. But at the same time, Charles Richter still came into the Lab campus, so you would see this–and of course, my undergraduate textbook in seismology was Richter. You had this sense of connectedness that went all the way through that. The mansion was pretty cool. But going to the Athenaeum at lunch and being at the table next to Feynman trumps the fact that you could be down at San Rafael.
ZIERLER: Now, was Minster your thesis advisor?
WALLACE: No, my thesis advisor was Don Helmberger, who was a perfect advisor for me. He was a relatively young faculty member. He was my second proposition, working on the Santa Barbara earthquake. We were well-matched in many ways. He's had tremendous impact on many, many students, and I was one of the very early ones, maybe the third.
ZIERLER: What was Helmberger working on at that point?
WALLACE: I think he always worked on the same thing – explaining every wiggle in every seismogram, to be perfectly honest. When I went there after working on an earthquake, I said, "Earthquakes are earthquakes. I want to do something theoretical. I want to rewrite the theoretical work you did for your PhD but take advantage of the fact that we're entering the computer age. How can I take advantage of a mathematical background and think about approximations for Bessel functions, use the Stirling formula, all these kinds of things?" He said, "Why don't you work on regional-distance seismograms?" These are seismic recordings that are recorded a few hundred kilometers to a few thousand kilometers away from the source, in which vibrations within the crust are really important. It so happened that we had a huge archive of those records associated with all the large-scale US nuclear tests. And my main thing was developing the theoretical tools, then modeling US nuclear tests to see how much I could actually get out of that record that told me what that nuclear weapon was really like. That, of course, made me a forensic seismologist, and the rest is history in terms of setting me up for my career.
ZIERLER: What was your thesis on? Was it those projects put together? Or did you do something separate for the defense?
WALLACE: My thesis was called Long Period Regional Body Waves, so it included theoretical development which was very much focused on mathematical tools and then applications, in particular, nuclear forensics, if you will. But I also included some earthquakes. There was a series of earthquakes that occurred in 1980 at Mammoth Lakes up in the Central Sierra Nevada. When these earthquakes happened, I was so happy that we finally got some local earthquakes. Then, as we were getting ready to look at those earthquakes, Mount St. Helens goes off, and nobody cares about earthquakes anymore, only volcanic eruptions. Mammoth Lakes and Mt. St. Helens were in the same month and just days apart. I had papers on some earthquakes like that. But the magic of the thesis versus doing the work is sometimes lost. The journey is far more interesting than the final bound copy of the thesis. Don Helmberger and his students, in particular, my colleague and classmate, Thorne Lay, happened to be working on nuclear explosion stuff. And most people don't realize that most money in seismology between 1959 and 1985 came from the Department of Defense. It did not come from NSF. We would go to these huge conferences to look at seismology as a verification tool – understanding if Soviets were conducting nuclear tests that were outside of treaty limits, and monitoring other countries like China and India. Don would be there at these meetings with me, and my first experience presenting to a scientific audience would be a slide show of a paper we'd work on then. We'd get up there, there would be a little screen and maybe 100 people in chairs in the audience, and Helmberger would say, "I'll put your slides on to the projector." And he would always just go to the slide he was interested in. It taught me to be impromptu, to have to tell a story about every single thing. And that was incredibly meaningful to me later in life, understanding what that was. That's one of the values of Don, being perhaps myopic in terms of, "I need to understand every wiggle." But every opportunity, it was, "Maybe I should be thinking about this."
ZIERLER: Is that to say that even in graduate school, with your awareness of the relevance of seismology for nuclear weapons testing, did you make an intellectual connection between that scholarly pursuit and possibly working in the field of national security?
WALLACE: I think so. I would also include Dave Harkrider. He was our theoretical geophysicist at the time. And in 1979, there was a mysterious event – maybe an explosion - off the southern coast of South Africa. We call it event 747. Harkrider came into my office and said, "I've got something for you to go work on, but you can't talk about it." And I worked on the gravity waves, the lifting of the atmosphere and coming back down, sort of like what we hear today when we have a large Tonga eruption. I collected all this esoteric pressure gauge from weather stations data to be able to look on that to be able to say something about whether that was an explosion or not. Of course, once we published a report it went away, and I never got to talk about that. But it made me realize that the earth is on all the time, and it's an incredible series of natural cameras and recorders, and we can see both natural phenomena and man-made phenomena. That was very much a turning point.
ZIERLER: I'm curious if JPL was an interface for you at all, if there was anything happening in the world of geodesy or elsewhere that was relevant for what you were doing?
WALLACE: Not specifically JPL, but geodesy is really important. Another Caltech graduate, slightly older than me, Jim Whitcomb, was very interested in the Palmdale Bulge. The bulge came and went in terms of some prediction for the next great earthquake on the San Andreas, but it prompted the idea of measuring the changing shape of the earth from space, and developing GPS-type instruments. I think that by 1981 or '82, as we began to talk about this, it was really clear that we should eventually be able to do seismology from space. Of course, today, people doing things like at Caltech on InSAR, in which we look at satellite differences, and be able to tell small amounts of displacement, and even do it in almost real time in some cases. We could see that this was possible in the 80s, but it required a technology ramp up before it was practical. Similarly, Kip Thorne was walking around in '79 and '80, trying to find a seismologist who would be able to use seismic stations at the two poles of the Earth to be able to look at stretching and squeezing of the earth to look for gravity waves. The timing clocks on seismic stations were too just too inaccurate at that time to make this practical. But all those things were pointing to a future in which, when we put all this together, was only technology-bound, and technology we'd eventually receive, we'd be able to look at the earth as essentially a living organism, changing dimensions. How does it affect its climate? All these kinds of things. And you could just see this in the early 80s, it was going to come. And here we are 40 years later, and we're definitely in another really exciting era for the Seismo Lab in that the impact of humans, or climate, or vibrations of the tall mountain ranges, all these kinds of things we can see in exquisite detail today. We could see the future in the 80s, but we weren't there yet. I did not think it would take as long as it did.
ZIERLER: You mentioned how the growth of computational power allowed for some new possibilities. What were the computers you were working with at that point? What did they look like, what could you do as a result?
WALLACE: We used the Caltech mainframe computer to begin with. When I wrote my code, which was a rework of what Don Helmberger had done–he had this code to do what we call ray theories he named it A series. I rewrote it as a new code called the Dehoopster. A feeble pun because we also played basketball. We would carry your four boxes of cards across the campus, and the Computer Center was sort of where the Student Center is today. Then, you'd go back the next day to get this big stack of output. The greatest fear of every computational scientist at that time was tripping because there was no way you were going to get those cards back in the right order. Rob Clayton showed up at the Seismo Lab about 1980, and he bought our first significant computer resources that we all could use. It was a Prime computer. A terrible machine, but nevertheless, it moved us to being able to write our own programs and have them self-stored. And what an exciting time that really was. It was great to be able to do that and get away from the cards, turn the cards into stored electrons, and make changes to the algorithms on the fly. This was fairly amazing, the things we could do by just running a computer code over and over. But today, I can write a little Perl script on my iPhone that does way more than I used to be able to do on that whole PRIME computer. But having Rob Clayton come and bring that first computer into the Seismo Lab was a landmark.
ZIERLER: Being at the Seismo Lab right at the time when data was becoming sort of more democratized, more widely shared, sense that the Seismo Lab was still a magnet, a place where outside researchers would want to come, and share ideas, and look at data.
WALLACE: It was the strongest magnet you can believe. Again, I had to leave Caltech before I really understood how strong that magnet was. Part of the cook's ingredient to that was the absolute demand by Don Anderson to every graduate student go to coffee twice a day, and the topics would not be what you were working on unless called upon in that sense. You were informed on everything that was going on from Tom Ahrens talking about shocking materials and what that may mean for the earth's core to Hiroo Kanamori bringing out the record for some historical earthquake, talking about, "We just had a little earthquake in the same spot. What does that really mean?" That was a heady elixir. And it attracted others. The famous paper, "Seismology and the new global tectonics" that helped really launch the paradigm of plate tectonics was coauthored by Lynn Sykes one of the earliest visitors I recall. Lynn came and visited for a semester when I was there, and he was essentially another professor teaching and mentoring. Anton Hales, Adam Dziewonski, Kei Aki came several times from MIT. They all came to the Seismo Lab and Caltech. On the other hand, as far as I can tell, nobody from Caltech went to the institutions of our visitors for extended stays – it was all about coming to Caltech. I don't know that's really true, but it was amazing. Everybody came there. And they shared and exchanged ideas and data. But it was the elixir of the intellectual exchange that was just so great. And I tried when I went and started at the University of Arizona, to rebuild that, and it was nothing like it in the 70s to early 80s at Caltech. Caltech was just intoxicating.
ZIERLER: Coming from a humble place, presumably, as a graduate student, looking back at your thesis research, did you feel like you were representing a particular school of thought in seismology, given the narrative of all the debates that were swirling around at that time?
WALLACE: That's a really good question. I think normally, I would've said no. But it was really interesting because seismology was trying to catch up on the computational step, and some Caltech grads had left earlier, so there was a lot of debate on certain kinds of topics. One of those topics was what we called the yield wars. Strange term, but were the Russians cheating with their yields in their seismic tests? The Threshold Test Ban Treaty codified a limit to the size of a nuclear test that could be performed, and it couldn't be over 150 kilotons. We crafted that limit with really bad intent because that was the maximum size you could have without shaking Howard Hughes's residence in downtown Las Vegas – I would have loved to say the limit of 150 kt was a scientifically rationale goal, but it was all about Vegas, baby. Really, that's where that number comes from. But we had people trying to determine that the yield was from seismology but it depended on the waves you used. Did you use surface waves, P-waves? It was pretty intense debate, trying to understand how much they attenuate in the earth.
We had these intense debates between people like Paul Richards, who's now at Columbia, about the attenuation factor in the earth versus Don Helmberger. At least as a scientist, they were very personal for me. It's not quite the question you asked, but with those debates, you were representing an evolving field that you may be wrong about because we still haven't figured out what the attenuation and so on was. But I viewed that was part of, again, the recipe to making this a fantastic time. I don't think I had to represent Los Alamos or New Mexico Tech. I didn't think that way. But I do know that whether I liked it or not, I couldn't embarrass Helmberger. Now, I don't think he was embarrass-able, but you definitely didn't want to embarrass Helmberger and never Don Anderson.
ZIERLER: In addition to Helmberger, who else was on your thesis committee?
WALLACE: Don Anderson, Hiroo Kanamori, Don Helmberger, then we had a planetary scientist named Dewey Muhleman, and I had Don Burnett from the geochemistry side.
ZIERLER: When you defended, thinking about your next opportunity, were you always focused on faculty positions? Did you think about government service at that point or even perhaps entering industry?
WALLACE: First of all, I think a failing of graduate education at that time was the expectation. to be successful you had to be like your advisor. It is part of the excitement of being at a place like Caltech, but success can be very different that being another professor. Certainly there was a strong tendency, and I still think there's a little prejudice of this, to produce, as a faculty member at Caltech, somebody who looks like you. And the measure to that success, then, is, "You should be a faculty member, like me." It doesn't matter what the university, you would be be expected to be a professor. I felt that pressure. I didn't feel it negatively, but all my classmates all felt that same kind of pressure, so we all were competing for academic jobs. I went and did the academic thing, and I succeeded just fine at the University of Arizona, but I didn't feel like I was contributing to something larger. I'm really fortunate I got to go home to Los Alamos and do things that were meaningful in terms of securing our country. But I will tell you that the mark of success when my class graduated in '82 and '83 was to show that you had an academic professorship.
And I regret that feeling a little bit. I think I could've contributed more in other ways. And I don't blame anybody for that, but it is a natural tendency when you're a faculty member to want to make somebody who looks like you. That's how you teach them. One of the accoutrements of that is you're an assistant, associate, and then a full professor, and then maybe a regions professor or something like that. That's the defined ladder for success. I still think we have a little bit of a problem in a lot of places in understanding, "Well, are you a full professor? Oh, you're a government scientist, so you couldn't be a professor?" Well, I've been fortunate to be able to see all kinds scientists and am convinced Universities don't have a monopoly on the best and brightest.
ZIERLER: I'm curious if Frank Press being Science Advisor to Jimmy Carter registered with you at all and made you think about public service at any point.
WALLACE: It certainly did. Frank came several times to the Seismo Lab. He's from Caltech of course. Interestingly, small world we live in, when I was recruited to go to Los Alamos from Arizona, the director of science and technology there, which is the job I eventually got, was Frank Press's son, Bill Press. There are no more Frank Presses today. He had tremendous sway not only with science policy, but of reminding everyone that every policy question has a science annex. And he was just a tremendous person in that way. And I think he influenced a lot of people, including me, to be able to do that. But to have his son here as the director of science and technology at Los Alamos was definitely a reinforcement of the role science plays in policy.
ZIERLER: At the University of Arizona, is there an analog to the Seismo Lab, a separate institute? Or is it part of the geology department?
WALLACE: It's part of the Geology, or Earth Science program. I'm like many of the people that graduated from my time, we set up a Seismo Lab kind of thing. We had Southern Arizona Seismic Observatory. We had our set of seismic stations, and we were the first public webpage for the sciences at the university, which would have an active earthquake map and so on. I think that was fairly common in the day to be able to do that. And again, we had a couple seismologists. We tried to make sure that they all had different disciplines. But there's nothing like Caltech. The governor of Arizona set up a seismic board, which I was the chair of for Arizona to try to provide public information. Because if you have a little earthquake in the Grand Canyon, every citizen wants to know what does it mean? Those kinds of things were there. But it remains unique in my opinion, the Seismo Lab. Different today, but still, as an entity–whether it should remain an entity has always been a discussion, but I think there's nothing else that's ever been quite like that.
ZIERLER: Was your hire part of a broader effort at Arizona to beef up the seismology program?
WALLACE: Not really. It was the realization that quantitative geoscience was the future. Arizona always had a fairly strong geology program, but if you were to look at their rankings, which they didn't really have at the time in the early 1980s, they would be number one in field geology and very proud of that. But of course, that's really important, but we were in this era when people were asking whether you could use a light oxygen isotope to tell us about climate change, or if mantle convection could be measured from gravity meters, very quantitative work. We were already asking those kinds of questions. What does the upper mantle really look like? It explained why we have the Rocky Mountains. It was the effort to be quantitative. Maybe not to be seismologists, but to be quantitative in the next generation of earth science.
ZIERLER: To foreshadow your time at Los Alamos, what were some of the interactions you had in the national science policy world, the AGU, being in Washington that may have served as a stepping stone to the National Lab?
WALLACE: Being a Helmberger student and going to every one of these research meetings on seismology for nuclear test evaluation, which were the national forum for things like trying to outline the next treaty perspective, opened lots of doors. At the same time, we'd had 100 years of seismology, but the instruments that had been deployed, like the World-Wide Seismic Network, were deployed because of questions about nuclear explosions after the late 50s, were pretty antiquated. Between Harvard, UC San Diego, and Caltech, there was this movement to make a consortium to be able to revitalize the instrumentation in seismology. This was IRIS, the Incorporated Research Institutes for Seismology. And I was one of the founding members. Frankly, I benefitted from being the right age and the right time to be part of the revolution on how seismology was done. To be able to be part of IRIS when it was founded, and I was on the committee to work on instrumentation, again, opened lots of doors to that. I later became chairman of IRIS. I was the president of the Seismological Society of America. I was on the government committee for the AGU that wrote the first position paper from the AGU/SSA answering a question President Clinton asked: "can we verify a comprehensive test ban". All those things came together from, really, the fact that we had antiquated instruments in the 80s and were trying to figure out how to solve a problem. And suddenly, we were able to do that. But many of my colleagues were in the same boat. The invention of the world wide web, new seismic instruments, real time communications, all caused a revolution in geophysics. This also was setting national security technology, if not full policy, in the 90s and beginning of this millennium.
ZIERLER: As a faculty member at University of Arizona, all of this consulting work, was it open source? Did you need a clearance for any of this?
WALLACE: That's a great question. At Arizona, like many universities, you couldn't do classified work on-site. That's changed a little bit, somewhat. But I would often go spend a summer in Los Alamos. Or I would go to AFTAC, the Air Force Technical Applications Center in Florida to work on specific problems. One of the marvelous things about academics also is that you're involved in teaching and research, but you also have this thing called the summer, in which I took the opportunity to work on different sets of problems.
ZIERLER: In the course of your 20 years of tenure at Arizona, I'm curious if there's a moment that sticks out in your memory that you decided you want to take the leap into national security work.
WALLACE: I think certainly by 1992 I was a full professor and I'd gotten the Macelwane Medal in the AGU, and I thought that was pretty nice, but I was like, "This academic thing is interesting, but what I'm doing in the summer makes a difference to me." I knew I was going to leave. It took me another ten years to do that, but I'm pretty sure that when President Bush announced the cessation of testing in September of 1992, and we, as a community, did an experiment, which was a chemical explosion at the Nevada Test Site to simulate nuclear explosions. It was called Chemical Kiloton, later renamed the non-proliferation experiment (NPE), it was clear the die was cast. I knew that I would coming back to Los Alamos. I still didn't know when, but it was clear that that was my long-term path.
ZIERLER: I'll just note that 1992 was a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In what ways did the end of the Cold War register for you and make you think differently about national security and nuclear weapons testing?
WALLACE: We had this dissolution, and there was lots of discussion about what would become of the Soviet Union. But at the same time, we began to see the rise of other nuclear powers. China tested nuclear weapons up until '96 – and in fact China had had some very large nuclear test in '92 and '96. It has always been clear that nuclear weapons were the one existential threat to humanity from a warfare perspective. The fall of the Soviet Union made the question of nuclear weapons more compelling because we were going to go from this kind of bipolar world, the US vs the Soviet Union, to multipolar world where maybe many states would have nuclear weapons. And the dissolution of the USSR also told us that maybe the Soviets would see their nuclear expertise spread across the world. And in fact, it did. But maybe not just the expertise, maybe the nuclear material. We began to ask a whole bunch of questions about improvised nuclear devices. How might we monitor for that? It's not necessarily a specific seismology question, but it's a great science question. Can you see plutonium from afar? Can you see uranium? It's really hard. What are the telltale signs? What are the patterns of life? How do we stop the perceived need for nuclear weapons in aspirant states?
All these things were big questions, and I was very interested in that. And at this point, everything was real-time, the internet was there. If you had an earthquake, IRIS had a few stations, and you didn't have to go into any laboratory. You could do it from home on the computer to do anlaysis on the size of that earthquake and what it meant in minutes, not days or weeks.. If you could do that, if you had an accidental explosion, the sinking of the Kursk, the Russian submarine in 2000, could we see that on a seismometer in real time in our own laboratory? It really was the falling apart of the Soviet Union, but at the same time, we were able to think beyond a single advisory. If we could use seismology and geophysics to see everything in real time then we could ask the question can we build a world-wide neighborhood watch, which really changed the way we looked at the world in terms of those kinds of questions.
ZIERLER: In 2001, even before you joined Los Alamos, I wonder how 9/11 changed your thinking about international security and if you appreciated at that time just how important the DOE national labs system would be in this new era.
WALLACE: That's a great question in terms of the way of thinking. I happened to be in Washington at that time, and I'd been in the Pentagon the day before 9/11. Not on the side of the building that was hit by the airliner. It took forever to get back home, by the way. But it was surreal from an emotional standpoint, but when you really began to look and ask the questions, you realized there was a huge technology implication. How could we have stopped this? What was the technology? It was profound to me. I had my first artificial hip in 1998, only 42 years old. And when I came to Washington, the first time I could fly after 9/11, it was really hard for anybody to believe I had an artificial hip. They had metal detectors, they made me take my pants all the way off. And it was the realization that we were in a different world, so we're going to have to think about technological solutions to questions we didn't imagine as being asked just a year before. And yes, it framed the national labs, what we do.
We'll never talk about all the interdiction to all the nefarious activities that have come from inventions at national laboratories, but they're numerous. And we wouldn't have been thinking about that the same way at all if 9/11 hadn't happened and we hadn't had the visceral experience. I was visibly shaken in September of 2001. Just because you have a standard way of thinking about things, and your life is this way. If you went to an airport in 2000, anybody could walk with you to the gate. And it was a totally different experience. But you should've recognized even then, because we'd had hijackings and everything else, that the fragility of human systems is extraordinary.
ZIERLER: From the initial summer work at Los Alamos, when did the conversations reach a point of seriousness where you committed to actually joining the Lab?
WALLACE: I think the first time was in 1998, which was a seminal year because both the Indians and Pakistanis tested in May of 1998. I was offered a job at that time. I felt like I had too many loose ends at that time, and it took me a couple years to get all those things wrapped up. But by then, I knew I'd be back at Los Alamos. Again, you can't ever understand serendipity. I showed up at Los Alamos to run what we call black programs, and the Lab was a little bit in turmoil. You mentioned Wen Ho Lee, but we had a big fire in New Mexico in 2000, and when they tried to evacuate some buildings, they couldn't locate some Nuclear Emergency Response files which are highly classified. It was turmoil. Well, I got there right in this turmoil, I suddenly went from them saying, "No, you're going to be in charge of the Earth and Environmental Science group," so a couple hundred people, and a year and a half after, they said, "We really need you to do this, and become an Associate Lab Director for Strategic Research."
Pure serendipity. And I couldn't have been that if I hadn't been an academic, by the way, because I saw the world differently than just being at the Lab. I knew I was going to go in '98. I never would've guessed all these other things would've happened. The path to becoming a director when you're not a nuclear physicist–it's never happened before is certainly twisty and strange. But I happened to be working on these intelligence problems, but it was also the connections in time to all these different things from nuclear testing to Chinese colleagues, understanding their program, putting seismometers in China. All those things came together.
ZIERLER: You can't predict the future, but was your sense that when you joined the Lab, you were on a path to leadership from the beginning?
WALLACE: I would say no. To be honest, I knew I was going to do something meaningful and interesting, but I couldn't have said I would've been the president of SSA, I couldn't have said I'd have been the chairman of IRIS. There probably is a predisposition to seeking those kinds of things without recognizing it, but I can't say I would identify a career ladder in any way. It was always, "This is an interesting an interesting problem." The driver is solving the problem, and the rest is just condiments as you go forward.
ZIERLER: Given your longstanding connections with the Lab, both personally and professionally, coming from a faculty position, what elements of the career transition were a soft landing, and what was rather jagged, you had to learn it on the spot?
WALLACE: I think the hardest thing for anybody to learn in this is that when you're an academic, you have to be important, write good papers, but you don't write them with the faculty member next door, you write them with a person at a different institution. It's a strange, strange thing, but reward is measured by NOT collaboration within your department by outside the department. That means that there are individual silos of excellence in an academic department, but perhaps not a "department" silo. When you become a scientist working on a problem at Los Alamos, it's the scientist or engineer next door that you depend upon. That's very different. And I know that sounds maybe a little trivial, but your community is those people in your hallway or in your facility, and you all succeed or fail together. At a university, it's you that succeeds or fails, and if the faculty member next door to you doesn't get tenure, it's not a black mark on you. I love the fact that we have to work together to do that, but I don't think anybody makes that as easily as it would sound. You're not going to be the first author on a paper. You may want to pick to go work with somebody else, but you've got a problem you've got to solve, and that problem can only be solved by the people next to you or in your laboratory.
ZIERLER: What were your responsibilities, and what was the reporting structure at your first job at the Lab?
WALLACE: I went to work on a black program. I got there in the spring of 2003, and the title was deputy division leader. A division is usually about 130 scientists and maybe 60 support staff. I was the deputy to that. But the day I first showed up on the job, the lab management took my boss, the division leader, and assigned him to do something more important, so they said, "You're going to be the division leader." That didn't go over well with people in the division. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: How much management experience could you have claimed at that point?
WALLACE: I'd had graduate students. And the reporting structure then was up to what we'd call a principal associate director, at that time, a guy named Tom Myers, a great chemist. That's probably a few thousand people, and then that goes to the director. I suddenly was the division leader. So, honestly, not much management experience – again there was tremendous luck in this first management opportunity that I was given. I couldn't actually do the job I was meant to do there, but I at least tried to take over the division. Then, in 2004, with laboratory roil from Wen Ho Lee and everything else, we had a safety incident, and NNSA shut down the laboratory and put in a new director. He was an admiral, Pete Nanos. Suddenly, I was in his administration. Well, if you shut down a national lab, you have to bring it back by all these protocols and rules. You can't just say, "OK, you're good to go." Frankly, I said, "Screw this. This is just stupid." I went out and hired somebody else, and we were the first division to stand back up in the entire lab. That galled Pete at the time, but it paved the way for other divisions to restart.
We became friends afterward, but it galled him at the time because it was like, "We need to do work. We need to do the thing." What that said to UC, the lab manager at the time, when they got ready to compete the Laboratory, "This is a guy that's got to be on the bid team"–I was the only senior person at Los Alamos who was on the bid team with the new consortium. All this was, as I said, was serendipity. When I joined the bid team, I was with people from companies, like Bechtel, and the Livermore people, like Mike Anastasio, the director. This was not a particularly-Los Alamos friendly situation. Well, Los Alamos and Livermore aren't great siblings, right? The first thing Mike said was, "We're going to shut down this, and this, and this." I was locked with him in the room until I convinced him he couldn't take that approach. That's my biggest accomplishment of all the things I have done at Los Alamos – I saved several things that were essential the laboratory and helped the incoming consortium to appreciate that we – Los Alamos – has a very special culture. Nobody will ever really understand intellectual battle. The outside consortium members just thought, "Oh, it'll be a lot cheaper because we're going to shut down the neutron facility." Sounded like a good idea. Or they wanted to shut down our effort to do this computer called Roadrunner, a hybrid computer, first one to break a petaflop. These are the threads of what is Los Alamos, and I had to make sure that tapestry did not unravel.
Livermore disliked many of the things Los Alamos was doing, so the Livermore staff coming with the consortium had the view that shutting down some facilities and functions would save the nation money. Basically, I was the thorn in their side. But I was a really deep thorn. I wouldn't be pulled into the pillorying of the world's finest scientific lab. My job as director of the science part was basically to make sure Anastasio didn't screw us up – well, that is the way I saw the world. When you say reporting structure, it's kind of a strange thing. When Mike left, the next director wanted me to do global security programs because we had some issues there. Global Security was my background so this was a nature move, and I reported to the next director, which was Charlie McMillan. We had some tremendous success in Global Security but the Lab had an accident in 2014 in which a drum of what we call low-level waste had an explosion down in WIPP. It shut down the Waste Isolation Project which was a disaster. I stepped away from being the director of global security to be the WiPP recovery manager. The whole time, this job was politics. Go to Carlsbad, tell them it's OK, convince Ernie Moniz that we knew what we were doing. That turned out, from my mother being a politician, to be a stronger skill than I would have expected. Who would've known that particular thing? Then, when I got to come back, I was naturally going to be the next director, but we had another competition.
ZIERLER: In your initial jobs at Los Alamos, did you have opportunity to draw on your expertise in seismology? Or was it really administrative at that point from the beginning?
WALLACE: No, I did have a lot of opportunity. Less of the work was done by me directly in seismology, and more was directing people with seismology. But I had an encyclopedic knowledge of nuclear explosions, for example. I still opine, and I may not be right on this, but I think I've looked at more seismic records from nuclear explosions than anybody else. Now, that's sort of like saying, "I've got the world's worst tattoo," too. But it's the expertise of understanding certain events, if there are records to be able to do something, that pushed our work forward. It was a different phase. I still got to do things related to my seismology background, but in a different way. If I was honest in answering your question fully, I would say I was still doing more administrative, but if not hands-on, I was still directed toward seismology. When you are the director, you don't do any science. You have to understand a lot, but you don't do any science.
ZIERLER: In the run-up to becoming director, what is the involvement in Washington DC? You mentioned Ernie Moniz, of course, secretary of energy to President Obama. What roles do the DOE and Washington in general play?
WALLACE: Big roles. The most important thing a director does, you can talk about running the Laboratory and everything else, but you have to write a letter to the President of the United States that cannot be changed that you certify the reliability, safety, and effectiveness of the nuclear deterrent. It's a big deal. That goes directly to the president. Everybody wants you to change it along the way. "Don't say that because they may not give us money for this or that." But nobody can change your letter. You directly go to the White House. Los Alamos and Livermore, that's a big, big deal. At the same time, there is no such thing, rightly so, as nuclear weapons being discussed that is not political. The national consortium that decides that we need a strategic deterrent is actually broad but quite fragile. And it is the director's job to be able to convince that group, Senators and House members, but Senators are the most important, that there's a reason for the deterrent and that you know how to do it safely, economically, environmentally friendly, and that is 50% of the job.
ZIERLER: We talked about Wen Ho Lee. Of course, one of the legacies of that is the creation of the NNSA. What interface did you have with that agency, or sub-agency, depending on how you look at it?
WALLACE: NNSA we would view as an agency even though it is in DOE You would see Ernie Moniz, or Rick Perry, Secretaries of Energy or whatever. But the fact of the matter is, the NNSA is your customer. The difficulty associated with this, and it was set up with the help of Senator Domenici to try to keep preservation of independence from big DOE. The NNSA sits between the civilian and military control of nuclear weapons. NNSA's job is the nuclear mission, and they can't do without the laboratories, but their mission is strangely hanging in space because it's delivering to DOD which has the budget. If you go back to the original Atomic Energy Act, nuclear weapons are to be civilian control. That's why we had the AEC, DOE, ERDA, and the NNSA. But the money comes from the Department of Defense's budget, so there's this constant struggle between the Department of Defense and STRATCOM. "We want this," and, "We can deliver this," from the NNSA perspective. And the peanut butter in that sandwich is the national labs.
You have to be able to truly embrace the role of trying to do the right thing, so an FFRDC, but at the same time, know that you have to report to NNSA, but you have to make DOD happy. And it's a pretty complicated thing to do. One of the first directors for NNSA was a guy named Linton Brooks. Fantastic mind, especially on non-proliferation. But in general, it's been a position it's hard to find the right person for. They have a great administrator today, which came from being director of a national laboratory, but it's a real hard job. I would say very few people, if they were honest, would tell you that the relationship between a national lab and NNSA is smooth.
ZIERLER: Looking back, what would you say your key achievements as director of Los Alamos were?
WALLACE: Others may disagree with this, but my key thing is, I believe we were the best technical intelligence laboratory in the world. That was my focus. We had a mission associated with doing things in nuclear weapons, but I wanted to make sure that we were providing, on the intelligence side, the best technical information possible about what the rest of the world was doing. And I really believe that we succeeded at that. I also believe that we helped move the national laboratories and DOE into the 21st century, even though it was 18 years afterwards after the calender shut the door on the 20th century. Running Los Alamos is a contract, so the government wants to make the contract small. "Let's make it economic." I believed that economics alone does not make for an excellent laboratory. For example I said , "We're going to have maternity leave", and the DOE said no. I blackmailed them – another story for another time. The fact that I was able to get maternity leave for the first DOE laboratory, and now all of them do it, I view that as the accomplishment. It was the people part, being able to do those kinds of things. Again, that sounds sort of trivial, but it was not.
ZIERLER: I was a federal employee, and that is not a trivial thing.
WALLACE: Those are the kinds of things I think I really helped do and that I'm proud of. And like I said, if the contract hadn't been expired, I probably wouldn't have had as much leverage for the blackmail. But nevertheless, we changed the rest of the complex.
ZIERLER: Given your emphasis on technical intelligence, if you can't or decide not to answer this question, I'll certainly understand, but does the National Laboratory's intelligence work interface directly in the 16-member IC? Or is the interface exclusively funneled through the DOE, and then from there to the IC?
WALLACE: One of the members of the IC, of course, is DOE IN. But things nuclear is complicated in the IC world. You have the nuclear intelligence committees, NTIC (Nuclear Technology Intelligence committee the group that gets called when a nuke goes off) or you have the JAEC, Joint Atomic Energy Commission, but the long-range big issues issue are done at the labs. The DOE IN is really important, and they help set the stage, but there are many problems of national security imperative that don't go through DOE IN because they know Los Alamos, for example, can deliver a satellite nobody else can. I'm very proud of that, but it's a little bit of a sore spot, too. Because we get accused all the time that we just want to build satellites. The fact of the matter is that we're able to provide a technical solution to problems that nobody else can.
ZIERLER: In your post-Laboratory life in public policy and science communication, the American public has a very short attention span, and we might think that 9/11 is ancient history or things like that. How can you convey that it's not accidental that we haven't had a 9/11 again? How can you make the public appreciate that it's because of intelligence, verification, the hard work day-in and day-out that we're keeping our nation secure?
WALLACE: I think you actually did my speech for me. We have to be able to communicate it at all times. Again, the attention span is short. But the war in Ukraine has revitalized the whole concept that there's an existential weapon out there and that you have to be able to do these kinds of things. We have to be the honest broker and the enthusiastic communicator. And that's not necessarily easy. Los Alamos had a fantastic director in Seig Hecker, and he's probably the voice people look at the most. Certainly, for the previous Korean Administration, he kept them from proliferating for at least a decade, and it was communication, communication, communication. The fact of the matter is, you also have to understand the context, and Seig has always been able to speak to the context. Ukraine gives us an opportunity also to remind people why we care, because there's a context.
ZIERLER: Thinking about Ukraine and bringing the conversation right up to the present, for the last part of our talk, I'd like to ask a few broadly retrospective questions, then we'll end looking to the future. To go back to the Seismo Lab, I wonder if you can reflect on some of the things you learned about collaborating, your approach to science, even collegiality that have stayed with you wherever your career has taken you.
WALLACE: I think the number-one thing that has influenced me was what we talked about, the fact that Don Anderson made everybody go to a coffee and said, "This is the big problem." And he made everybody participate in this. At least in the 70s, I don't think that was the natural academic way. You've got to go get your piece of the puzzle, go get a thesis, "It's mine." And you were challenged. I don't know that the culture of that time was perhaps the best. I participated in the graduate student pre-orals, and the job was to tear the student down. Make sure they could defend it, but tear them down. I was a master at it. That's not exactly something today I'm proud of, but I was really good at it. But the idea that you're part of the whole community to be able to do that comes very strongly from that time at Caltech. There was the colleague down the hall, and you may not be working on a paper together, but he's going to go become a professor at the University of Michigan. That's your colleague. And every day you would come in, there would be a new earthquake somewhere. Somebody else may be working on that, but it forced people to ask about the consequences to everything else going on there. That intellectual nugget, radioactive as it is, is something that was incredibly shaping for me, but also, I think, really good for science. I think the Seismo Lab is a perfect example of that. It incubates so much because maybe the bad part is, you have to keep up with the guy down the hallway. On the other hand, he's doing something, and, "What does it have to do with what I'm doing?" is a really, really powerful part of modern science.
ZIERLER: Have you been able to keep up with the Seismo Lab over the years?
WALLACE: I try to. I don't always do it. I've sent a lot of students there. Unfortunately, more students left after one year than stayed. But many of them have graduated. I think Rob Clayton and Hiroo Kanamori are still there, but everybody else is different. Gurnis and people like that. George Rossman in the department, and we talk quite a bit about minerals, and there's excitement associate with that. There is the connection. When you ask that, the first thing I feel is a ping of regret, "Why didn't I do more?" But it is still a fantastic place in terms of the intellectual ferment that's there.
ZIERLER: You've led a career where you can reflect on your achievements both in basic science and in public policy. I wonder if you can think about comparing satisfaction in what you've been able to achieve in both realms.
WALLACE: If you were to ask me what my greatest skill is, I'm not Richard Feynman. I don't come up with charm diagrams. I have many colleagues who are more successful as seismologists. I'm the guy who connects all the dots, which is perfect for intelligence, by the way. If I were to ask why I've been successful, to come back to where your question was, it's because I've always embraced the very broad. I think the success I've had in the things I've done is in connecting things which don't seem connected at all. And most of it ends up being on the intelligence side, which you wouldn't necessarily be able to talk about. If I could make anything for anybody be real, it would be always ask the question why. We beat it out of our children at age 5 or 6. "Don't ask me why anymore. Don't ask me why a lollipop sticks to my hair." But the fact of the matter is, that curiosity drive is still why I'm successful. I accept nothing at face value. It's always, "Why is that? Why does the hail stone always have a white interior and a clear outside?" There's not a day that doesn't go by that I realize there's a really interesting problem in everything that's there, and that's connecting the dots. Caltech is a place that if you choose to, you can become incredibly broad and skilled at looking at those dots
ZIERLER: For my last question, looking to the future, I wonder if we can engage in a little generational thinking. Of course, you grew up in what historians call the American century. So much power, so much support for basic science, and you ran with it, it served you so well. Where are you most optimistic that we'll continue into a new American century, and where are you most concerned, given all the problems that Americans are facing right now, that a kid in a similar situation as you might not have the same opportunities?
WALLACE: From the optimistic side, we still haven't figured out the world we're in in the sense that we have instantaneous communication. I started out by saying that I'm not a Zoom guy. I don't read somebody, I don't understand the body language, therefore, I'm losing some communication. But the fact of the matter is, I can get much more information in a really easy way. It's a little facetious, but the fact of the matter is, I can fix everything around the house now because there's a YouTube video for every single thing. I don't mean to be bad, but there's some guy from Arkansas out in the middle of no where in a cabin who can tell you exactly how to fix your furnace. This is a chance to harvest the intellect of many people who would not necessarily have the opportunity to go into STEM, maybe don't even have the opportunity to go to Caltech. I see it as a huge, untapped, unrealized societal change. We all have access to everything. The negative is, we're building social structures to try to limit that. I'm not so worried about funding for science. I think we'll always feel under-funded for science. On the other hand, there's a huge amount of science to be done for a lot less money than we do it, too.
We have to be able to open that aperture to allow that to go forward. I'm optimistic that we have a revolution afoot, and that's access to information. I'm pessimistic that we'll build social structures which tell us that's not important. My example to this is that everybody believes me when I write a letter and certify a nuclear weapon, but nobody believes me on climate change. It's a mystery to me. I have an iPhone. Everybody has an iPhone. You've got an iPhone. It's only been around since 2007. And they expect that from me, and you, and scientists. But they don't believe us when we say that we can build a vaccine in six months with messenger RNA. And that's a social structure we're building. And it's not just the US, it's the world. I don't know how to navigate that. I feel pessimistic right now about how to navigate that.
Because I don't think scientists should be the ones in charge. We're just as bad as anybody else in terms of these. But understanding that there's power in that information is what I hope that we can move forward. But I'm incredibly optimistic if we can keep this ability to get information to everyone. We have a fire in New Mexico right now. Everybody I know of in Northern New Mexico is downloading the real-time MODIS satellite information. They can tell you where the fire's going better than the people working on it right now. That's exciting. And if we can turn that into good for society, good for mankind, I'm hopeful.
ZIERLER: Terry, on that note, it's been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I'm so glad we were able to do this, you could share your perspective over the course of your career. Thank you so much.
WALLACE: Thank you.