Thomas Bowles Interview

Lab-to-Lab: US-Russian Lab-to-Lab Collaboration Story [Archived]

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Chasing Neutrinos with Russians

February 2, 2017, at Sig Hecker’s house, Santa Fe, NM.
TB: Thomas Bowles; SH: Sig Hecker; AK: Alla Kassianova

AK: I understand that you were part of Los Alamos, but you were not directly in the weapons program, is that correct?

TB: Well, yes and no. I came to Los Alamos because I went to graduate school at Princeton and my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Gerry Garvey, moved to Argonne National Laboratory as the Physics Division Director while I was finishing writing my thesis. I followed Dr. Garvey to Argonne and then took a position there as a postdoc. I worked with a group at Argonne who were doing experiments at Los Alamos. One of the great things about Los Alamos was LAMPF, the Meson Physics Facility that was a national user facility that brought a lot of people to the laboratory. They got to see the research that could be done at Los Alamos and what it was like to live here. Some of those people decided to get engaged with Los Alamos. Some went into the weapons programs, some went into basic research, and some did a mix of both. From my work with the Argonne group at Los Alamos, I made connections at the Lab and was offered a staff position at Los Alamos in the Physics Division.

The group that I was part of originally was called P-3 and then it was reorganized into P-23 with half of the people in weapons physics, and half in basic research. At one point, I was the group leader for P-23, so I spent time out at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). Although it was after we had stopped nuclear testing, there was still a lot of weapons physics research going on at the Test Site. Many of my friends were in the testing program at the Test Site and I made some direct contributions to the weapons program. When John Browne was director, I served on the weapons physics review program. Later, when I was Chief Science Officer, one of my responsibilities was to organize review programs which included some weapons review. My most important contribution to the weapons program was when I was the group leader of P-23. A national technical support company (EG&G) was contracted to provide technical support at NTS. When nuclear testing ceased, they still provided some support for efforts at NTS, but were not allowed to directly support the weapons efforts that were increasing in Los Alamos. I was able to convince the Laboratory Director (John Browne) to request DOE approval for EG&G to support weapons physics activities in Los Alamos itself. John Browne was successful in getting the DOE to agree and EG&G became a very important component of weapons physics that was being carried out directly in Los Alamos. To this day, we have strong technical support for weapons physics at the Lab including explosives, DARHT, P-Rad, and other programs. And I was still doing basic research during all of this.

As Chief Science Officer I got interested in other things that reported to me, one of which was technology transfer. I had been involved with that previously by looking to see how the lab could be more effective in supporting economic growth of the country. When the laboratory switched over contractors from the University of California to the Bechtel Consortium, I was a part of the Red team for the Bechtel proposal. At the time of the transition to Bechtel, I was asked to go down to Santa Fe and serve as a science advisor to Governor Bill Richardson. When I interviewed with Richardson, he said, “I am looking for some big, bold ideas.” I thought that sounds like fun, so agreed to work with the Governor. I took with me a lot of things I learned about at the Laboratory. I thought I would be there for a year, but ended up being there for four years, from 2006 to 2010. I was still involved in science, but more in using what science and technology develops to benefit people.

After my tenure with Richardson was over, I was appointed to the board of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation for Science, which works to promote research and economic development on a technology basis in both countries. When President Obama signed an agreement on high-level economic dialogue with the country of Mexico, they formed a council to promote economic development. It is called MUSEIC – Mexico-US Entrepreneurship and Innovation Council. I was appointed as one of the 12 U.S. Council members and made U.S. Chair for Technology Commercialization with Mexico. I proposed working on an advanced manufacturing effort called Intelligent Manufacturing in which you implemented advanced IT capabilities into all aspects of manufacturing. This effort has received strong support from the Department of State, Department of Commerce, National Science Foundation, and other agencies. Or at least it had such support until the recent Trump inauguration. And now we’ll see.

SH: How then did you first get involved with the Russians and why? When did you come to Los Alamos first?

TB: 1979. Starting in August ‘76 after I was a postdoc for three years at Argonne National Lab. I had a very strong interest in fundamental physics and got interested in neutrinos. There was at that time the discovery of the psi particle and a lot of things going on in physics in the 80s and 90s that were very exciting. When I came to Los Alamos, I met Herb Chen. Herb was doing a neutrino experiment at LAMPF, and I got involved in that. I got into the neutrino business, and I continued to work with Hamish Robertson. I had met Hamish when he was a Visiting Professor at Princeton while I was a graduate student there. When Hamish returned to Michigan State University, I worked on several experiments with him while I was at Argonne. After I moved to Los Alamos, Hamish came down for a visit and we went to a talk by Gerry Stephenson, the deputy director of Physics Division, about the Russian result in which E.F. Tretyakov and co-workers claimed that the neutrino had 30 eV of mass. If that was true, it was enough to close the Universe. That was a really big deal, and lots of people were looking at it and trying to check the Russian findings. As Hamish and I came out of the Physics Auditorium, we looked at each other and said, “I bet we can check that.” So we started developing a way to test the Russian claim. It was under Jay Keyworth while he was the Physics Division leader.

SH: So it was 1982 or ’83.

TB: Yes, exactly. And we went in, and told Jay about our idea. Jay said to go ahead with it. That was before very detailed and lengthy reviews of all new efforts. Jay was a very interesting guy. I would say he shot from the hip, he had very good intuition and insight and was usually right and usually had an immediate reaction to things. And bang – we took off on it. Jay later became science advisor of President Reagan.

When we met with Jay, we said there is this Russian experiment and explained our idea for a tritium beta decay experiment to test for a finite mass neutrino. Jay said we should work on it, so we started talking to people and meeting some Russians at meetings around the world. I had already been involved in a neutrino experiment at LAMPF with Herb Chen, so I already knew people in the neutrino field. The first meeting we went to was in Italy. As we met with other researchers and discussed our idea, we developed the specifics of how to test the Russian claim in a very accurate measurement of tritium beta decay. At one point, we met with Jay and told him that we are going to need another 100,000 dollars to finish the beta spectrometer. He said, Ok. That was it. Very fast. I am sure it would have taken much, much longer if we did not have the direct support of Keyworth. We started an experiment, and found, in fact, that there had been a problem with the Russian experiment. Ours was the first new result that came out and we found that the neutrino mass was, if anything, very small and specifically less than 9.3 eV. That got a lot of attention because it meant the neutrino was not a major component of the Mass of the Universe and was not large enough to close the Universe. I still have clippings from the NY Times, Washington Post, San Francisco, Rome, and from all around the world. Because of that, we were very engaged with the scientific community and got to know some of the Russians.

SH: Who was the key Russian?

TB: The guy who led the neutrino work was Tretyakov. He was at St. Petersburg at one of the research institutes, I have forgotten which one now. I had already been involved in a neutrino experiment at LAMPF with Herb Chen, so I got to know the people in the neutrino field. The other bit of evidence that said something unusual was going on with neutrinos came from Ray Davis, who ran a solar neutrino experiment looking at neutrinos produced in the fusion reactions in the Sun and coming to Earth. He looked at high-energy neutrinos, but there were just not enough of them. They were off by a factor of 3. Lots of people said, oh no, there’s something wrong, and kept checking and checking things, but nobody could find anything wrong with it. The Sun generates most of its energy in the p-p reaction when two protons fuse to make deuterium which emits an electron neutrino in the process. The p-p neutrinos are very low energy so it is very hard to detect them. The only way people knew how to detect them was using gallium metal, which has a very low reaction threshold for neutrinos. p-p neutrinos can turn a gallium71 atom into germanium71.If you detect the germanium71, then you have a direct measure of the p-p neutrinos.

In a gallium solar neutrino experiment, you just measure how bright the Sun is and you measure the neutrinos coming into your detector. There’s no theory or calculations, it’s all very straightforward. Well, that’s fine except gallium is very expensive. There was a proposal to do a U.S. experiment. Ray Davis was involved with it, but it was actually led by Gerhart Friedlander at Brookhaven National Lab. We formed a triumvirate with Friedlander as co-PI, myself as co-PI, and Hamish Robertson as co-PI. We went and talked to DOE and NSF, the funding agencies, and the universities, all of which were involved in this. They were all yes, yes, very interesting… but the experiment was going to probably cost $50-100M. There was a proposal in Heidelberg, Germany, for a European gallium experiment, and there was one in Russia, at the Institute for Nuclear Research. The people at DOE said, why don’t you go talk to these other two groups and form a collaboration. So we went and talked to the Heidelberg group and they said ‘We don’t need you. We have everything we need.’ After that I was at a meeting in South Dakota, (where Ray Davis had done his experiments in the gold mines) and one of the Russians was there, Vladimir Gavrin. He was the head of the group at the neutrino group at the Institute for Nuclear Research (INR). He had some 60 people working for him in that department. He said, “We are starting an experiment. We would love to collaborate with you.” So we got together and made them an offer.

AK: Which year was that?

TB: 1985, the spring of 1985. In October 1985, I went over to Russia for meetings in Moscow. That was my first trip to Russia. The experiment is set up at Neutrino Village in the Baksan Valley in Southern Russia, in the Caucasus mountains, right by Mount Elbrus. We were 10 kilometers away from the country of Georgia and only about 60 kilometers away from Chechnya. So I went to Baksan and talked about the research we were doing at Los Alamos. I did not speak Russian at that point. I had a translator, and it was a very interesting experience, because I would talk for 2 or 3 minutes and the translator would talk for 5 seconds, and then I would say 3 sentences and he would talk for 5 minutes. I never quite knew what people thought I said at that meeting. But we had common needs. The Russians had 60 tons of gallium metal, which they had gotten through the military I think. That had a value close to $100M on the U.S. market. We had all the high technology, detectors, computing equipment, so on. They had built this underground laboratory purely for basic research with nothing in applied research going on there. It had a big gallium chamber 30’ wide x over 100’ long. You go underground 3 kilometers with a big mountain over the top of you to shield the experiment from cosmic rays. We went in to the gallium chamber, which they were still building. It was hot as heck, over 100 degrees, 100 percent humidity and only a few lights, because they were still excavating. One and a half kilometers of rock above your head, and 2.7 kilometers to the gallium chamber. And they were building other even larger chambers for more experiments. We decided they have what we need and we have what they need. We went back to DOE that winter, and in 1986 they approved us to participate with the Russians.

The only Russian group that was involved was the Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia. They were located just south of Moscow. Los Alamos was the lead laboratory in the US with Ray Davis from Brookhaven and Ken Lande (who worked with Ray Davis) from the University of Pennsylvania. Later on it expanded to include England when one of my postdocs became a professor at Oxford. So, with Oxford we were involved in a tri-national collaboration.

The place where the gallium experiment was built was selected specifically because of the type of rock with the location on the very steep side of the mountain, so you did not have to go far underground to have a lot of rock shielding above you. There was absolutely nothing there. The Institute built a small town called Neutrino Village with maybe 200 people who lived there. The INR had a condominium there where we would stay. We would usually come over – four or five of us – and stay for a month. We would have someone in Russia every single month of the year. I made 27 trips to Russia between 1985 and 2005.

The inside of a facility

Underground laboratory in the Baksan Experiment

SH: So it began when we were still at the height still of the Cold War, 1986. It was in January 1986 that I became Director of the Los Alamos Lab. That’s when I found out about SAGE –

TB: That’s right, Soviet-American Gallium Experiment.

SH: I thought it was great.

TB: Yes, we did some great things, I have to say. The DOE funded us, the Soviet Academy of Science funded the Russian effort, and this was under the Joint Coordinating Committee for Research on the Fundamental Properties of Matter, JCCFPM. And I think we were unique in that they had many programs when we started this in late 1985 to early ‘86, and we were the last one still in operation. In fact, we are still collaborating with Russia, but not so directly.

AK: So it is still there?

TB: It’s still there, it’s still running. They’ve tried to get additional funding to extend it and upgrade things but that really has not come forward. People here in the U.S., the SAGE people are somewhat distributed – some at the University of Washington, some at the University of North Carolina, and some at the University of Pennsylvania. I still stay in touch, but we have no funding. We exchange ideas and so on, but the fact of the matter is that the time for the gallium experiments is come and gone. The Russians have some ideas of how to do some interesting research if you could significantly expand it, but they don’t have the support now. They are sort of holding on, hoping that times will change and they will get back into doing things.

SH: When you started this out, you had funding from DOE. Then, how did you manage the funding? Did you support their activities also with money?

TB: We signed an international collaboration agreement. It said we would provide equipment, supplies, materials, and staff, and that we would make several visits a year there. They would make several visits a year here, and each country would cover the local expenses of those visits. We went over there, they gave us rubles, and when they came over here, we gave them dollars. The agreement did not specify exact amounts of equipment and so on, it just said “technology needed to advance the experiment would be provided by the American side, and manpower, gallium metal and chemical reactors will be provided by Russia.” One of the first needs was computers. They actually had no computers. They had registers that would take data and generate spectra, they would print out the registers by hand, they would come out at night and they would graph by hand what the spectra looked like. We had to go through amazing hoops to send computers

SH: Export controls…

TB: Yes, and we had to promise and swear to NATO that they would be returned to the United States at the end of their use and so on to ensure they would not be not used for military purposes. (We actually got out of that requirement 15 years later.) The way the experiment worked was that you had these vats of gallium metal, which had to be heated to liquefy the gallium – it’s solid at room temperature. The vats were big, ten of them, holding 60 tons, a meter and a half diameter by a meter and a half high. Neutrinos from the Sun would come in and once in a great while would make a germanium71 atom, which has a ten-day half-life. Every ten to twenty days you would add hydrochloric acid to the gallium and stir it up. That would make a chemical solution that you would extract, and then evaporate it with some chemical processing to get the germanium. We made GeH4, germane gas, and put it into special ultra-low background proportional counters the size of your little finger. The counter was placed inside a large NaI (sodium iodide) gamma ray detector inside a massive steel shield. The signals from the proportional counters and NaI detector were recorded and analyzed using the computers we provided.

SH: How many germanium atoms were actually generated in that time frame?

TB: In the Standard Solar Model, if everything was right, solar neutrinos would make about one germanium71 atom a day in the 60 tons of gallium. In a week’s time, some of the atoms would decay while still in the gallium tanks, so you would get several germanium atoms. When you fold in chemical extraction and detector efficiencies, the Standard Solar Model predicted you should observe two or three germanium atoms decay in a proportional counter. Since only half the atoms decay in 10 days, you had to take data for several weeks in each counter to ensure you observed all the decays. And you had to count each extraction much longer to determine any background from the proportional counters. To get enough statistics to make an accurate determination of the solar neutrino flux, you just kept doing extractions and more extractions. That not only took patience, but also perseverance under sometimes adverse conditions. One of the terms the Russians used was they would say “Today would be a bad air day.” Meaning they were doing extractions and they were opening up the gallium tanks with hydrochloric acid in them and acid fumes were everywhere. All the metal in the gallium chamber would get eroded. Everything, including the computers, were so corroded at the end of the 15 years it was decided they would be a chemical hazard to ship them back to the US. NATO agreed to that and so we got out of the requirement to return the computers when we were done using them. Of course, after 15 year the computers were so outdated that they had no real value.

SH: That lasted through the Gorbachev days and into the 1990s.

TB: Into 1990 and 2000s… I tell people, “I watched the collapse of the Soviet Union from inside Russia.” Which was interesting, because when we started, it was still the depth of the Cold War. When I say the military could get what they wanted, the military got the first choice of computers. If they had any computers left over, research groups could petition and try to get some computers. One of the problems was that everything in the Soviet Union was set up so you had central production of things. For example, all minivans they used to pick us up and drive us to Neutrino Village were made in Lithuania or some place. Computers were also made in one place, and there was a very limited production. There was no supply and demand. Even for communication, you had to get approval for anything from the local commissariat. I was there and said I needed to make a call to the United States. This was about 1989 or 1990. The Russians said, “Oh, that will be a problem.” And I said again, “Well, I need to make a call to Los Alamos.” They went and finally got permission after two week for me to make a call. My instructions were: go into a particular building in the Village, and go into a specific room, and you will see a telephone on the desk. Sometime between 6 o’clock in the morning and 10 o’clock at night it will ring, and you should pick it up. So I fixed that problem: I bought a satellite system and installed it. It lasted for a while, until parts failed and people took equipment away.

When we went to Russia, they would give us a per diem. I was there when they had the devaluation of the ruble. I have a picture of our technician with three weeks per diem for three of us. He held a stack of bills from his waist up to his chin. When we went there, we just went to the Neutrino Village. There were no stores, and you could not buy anything. You had to drive to another town, so we just always returned the per diem when we were done. They put it in an account for us, and in the end, I remember, I had, around 750 rubles. It was one ruble to one dollar at that point. Gavrin said the Russian government will devalue the ruble by factor of 100. I said “Buy something, buy a TV, buy something to eat, I don’t care, just buy something with the money before it gets devalued.” Their response was: “No, no, this is your money, we can’t take your money.” So he let it go. I mean, they lost all that money because they are very honest people, and it was just inappropriate that they should take our money and do something without us there.

I have to say, the government, in principle, very strongly supported research. The people who worked in research were very, very good – very smart, very dedicated, extremely hard working, endlessly inventive in finding solutions to problems. I remember once, they had a vacuum system, and we needed a vacuum of 10-7 or better for the equipment to work properly and it would only go down to 10-5. And I said well, we need to fix it. They said we can’t. I asked why not? They said we have no vacuum grease. I asked “what do you use?” Butter. Butter has a vapor pressure of 10-5, so that’s as good as we can do.

The INR had a condo in Neutrino Village. We would live on one side, the Americans, and the Russians on the other. When I went shopping with them for meat and food, it was a three-hour drive from the village to the nearest city of Mineral Water. We used to fly into the town of Mineral Water, Mineral’nye Vody, and it was a three-hour drive from there to the experiment. They provided local transportation, and that was sometimes hit or miss. One time we were there in the winter, the driver had sort of a school bus, and the windshield was broken. We drove three hours with this poor guy freezing. He never complained. It was part of life – you just do what you need to do.

We became good friends. One of your questions was, did it change the way that you work. Definitely, I learned a lot from it. And they also learned a lot from it. When we first went there, Gavrin said “We need to work harder and harder.” People would work for 12 hours and when we came out from underground, Gavrin would hold a meeting with the Russians telling them we have to work harder and do this and this and this. He was very driven. When he and some of his group came over to the United States I invited them to a party at my house. Hamish Robertson who was the co-PI was there, and Gavrin, started telling Hamish, “You are not working hard enough, we need this this and this. And you need to work more on the experiment.” Hamish said, “Fine! You don’t like it? I quit.” And he left. Gavrin turned and looked at me and said, “What did he mean?” I said, “He just quit. You will never see him again. He is not going to work on the experiment anymore.” Gavrin said, “He can’t do that! It’s not allowed!” I said “Maybe in Russia it is not allowed, but in the United States it is different.” Hamish never ever had anything to do with the experiment again.

SH: That was the end of Hamish’ work?

TB: Yea. Hamish bowed out of the SAGE. I ended up taking over the entire U.S. effort. And after a while we got to learn that cultures are different, the ways of doing things are different. We found, if we worked together, we could do a lot more, if we didn’t insist on this or that. I wish our Congress could do as well as we did with the Russians.

And I have to also give Gavrin credit. Because at that point, every Russian group that had a collaboration always had a ringer in it. A ringer was somebody from the KGB to make sure nothing inappropriate was said and then report back on all interactions and meetings. Gavrin refused to have such a person involved.

AK: How did you know that?

TB: He told me about it 5 years later. I think because I asked him “You know, all these other people talk about somebody coming along, and you talk to them about physics and they don’t understand what you are talking about. They never say anything, but they always listen, you know.” And Gavrin just told me about the ringers and when he was told that SAGE would have a ringer he just said “No. I was asked to take a ringer, but I refused to do that.” Matveev, the director of the INR, supported him in that. So SAGE was the first collaboration that did not have a Russian ringer. That was before glasnost and perestroika. It was still very much the Soviet Union at that time, it was not Russia.

AK: How would you sort out the results?

TB: We would come together. They would share data with us, we would go over, check it. We were in competition with Germany. The group of Germans had a lot of financial support; it was a very big operation. I think everybody wholly expected that we and the Russians would just disappear sometime. And part of it was that things were not open, it was not easy for people to visit the experiment in Russia, physically. It was a long way away from anything and there were restrictions on travel. Till Kirsten, the head of the German group came over in November-December 1989 and toured the facility. Gavrin was very upfront about some of the issues that we were having in it. Kirsten left thinking, oh, these guys are never going to get anything. But we got all our problems resolved and we started taking data. Every two years there’s an international neutrino meeting somewhere in the world. And the one in June of 1990 was held in Geneva, at CERN. We had data and we had not told anybody. We went, the Americans went to Russia and in April-May 1990 and met with Gavrin, Matveev, and other people from the institute in Moscow to review what we had done. It was decided, yes, we should announce the results, which said there was a significant deficit of these neutrinos. So, we all agreed on the results and agreed in writing to present them. We were careful to make an analysis of systematic uncertainties so that the significance of the results was accurately stated. We went to the meeting in Geneva and Gavrin reported on our results, I remember very clearly at the end of his talk that Kirsten jumped up and he goes, “Nooooo!!” He was so upset that we beat them, and since he had been at Baksan he was so sure there was no chance we would beat them.

SH: The Germans, they also had a gallium experiment?

TB: Yes, they did. But it was a very different process. The GALLEX experiment had a very large tank with 30 tons of gallium in the form of gallium chloride. It was a liquid solution, so they bubbled gas to extract the germanium. The chemistry was different, and somewhat easier, but they had a lot more background problems. They were in the Gran Sasso Underground Laboratory east of Rome.

We got good results; but we needed to check the validity of our results. The way you check it is you make an artificial neutrino source and irradiate the gallium with it. To make the source, we had small rods of chromium enriched in chromium-50. We made Chromium-51 by irradiating the chromium-50 rods in a very high intensity nuclear reactor in Kazakhstan. The reactor was very special and was a secure facility that produced other things as part of the Soviet weapons complex.

Gavrin arranged to go to Kazakhstan to arrange for all this. I remember him telling me they had to obtain all sorts of security clearances since it was a military reactor. Gavrin got to the final door before going into the containment room of the reactor to go over preparations for the production of the Cr51 source. Something was wrong with his badge, and the door would not open. The guard immediately shoved a Kalashnikov in his stomach and yelled “Stop! Hold.” They finally found out there was a glitch in keying the badge and it was straightened out. But I am sure Gavrin must have been scared to death. Anyway, he went in to the reactor to arrange for the chromium-51.

At Los Alamos we built remote handling equipment for the Cr51 source since it was very radioactive. One of the things I learned in doing science is perceptions are as important sometimes as facts. To make the source, we had small pieces of chromium-50. We had designed a depleted uranium shield to put it in to keep the gamma-ray radiation very low. But people had concerns that since depleted uranium is still radioactive that it might cause a background and invalidate the results of the experiment. We had carefully done all the analyses of issues with using depleted uranium. But we couldn’t convince everyone. We ended up going with heavy metal for the shield instead of depleted uranium, which meant the source was actually very hot (radioactive). We designed and built a remote handling system to take the source out of the shipping cask and place it into the center of a special gallium tank. And again, we went through some interesting discussions on this.

One of the questions was what about transport of the source. The rods with Cr51 in them were inside a small heavy metal shield that was inside a small cask inside a much larger outer shield. So although the source was very radioactive, but was inside a large shield, there was no external radiation from the outer shield. I had to go meet with one of the Ministers in Chechnya, because we were going to ship the source through Chechnya. I remember, because it was on Christmas Day. The Minister wanted to know, why should we allow you to transport this through our region? We went over a lot of things. He offered me some vodka and very nice things to eat. I realized he was really trying to find out what was he going to personally get out of this. I finally convinced him that there was no danger in shipping the source and that if he didn’t approve it he would be in a lot of trouble. He finally agreed reluctantly to let us ship the source through Chechnya.

SH: What year was this?

TB: This was about ‘93 or so. After our first results, we were asked, how do you know that the experimental results were right, so we had to check.

SH: So Geneva was ‘92 or so?

TB: It was 1990, June of 1990. When we had some initial results, and it came out low, there was a large uncertainty, because our counting efficiency at first was not very high. Then we improved things, and had more and more data and we still came out with a very significant deficit. This was the first experiment after Ray Davis that said there was something very strange going on with neutrinos that we don’t understand. The only viable explanation was the neutrino had a mass of some sort.

Anyhow, we finally got the source there, and the local authorities at Baksan were very upset about it; they said, oh, this is unsafe and everything. I remember Gavrin took the small inner cask with the Cr51 source in it out of the van. He set the cask down on the ground, and he sat on top of it and said, “What’s the problem? The local officials said, “This thing is very dangerous, very bad. If you get anywhere near, you will die.” He said, “I am sitting on it, you know and I am not dying.” So they let us keep the source. Again, the Russians just did whatever was needed.

Another time, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and after we had results from several years of operation, someone in the government got the good idea that the gallium metal should be returned to the government and sold. Of course I expect the reason for this “good idea” was that the government official would profit personally from the sale of the gallium. Gavrin refused to give the gallium back since the Russian Academy of Sciences had not approved the removal. He blockaded himself and several of his team in the tunnel leading to the gallium chamber and refused to open the tunnel doors when some people arrived with trucks to take the gallium away. It took several days, but finally Matveev, the INR Director, got things sorted out and the order to remove the gallium was rescinded. Once again, the Russian scientists just did whatever was required to ensure they got the scientific research done, even when it put them personally at risk. I have tremendous respect for the Russian scientists and the people at Institute for Nuclear Research.

Group of men smiling for the camera, some with roses.

Markov prize winners (from left) Vadim Kuzmin, Tom Bowles and Vladimir Gavrin, together with the first director of the INR, Albert Tavkhelidze, and its then director Victor Matveev. 2003

We learned from each other. There is another side of the story, also, because we went to Russia so many times, and they came over here so many times also. Our families got to know each other, and we got invited over to their apartment, to parties. Every time I showed up in Moscow, they would grab me and take me to the Bolshoi, after 26 hours on the plane. And it was fantastic. But I also saw that over time it declined. When I first started going there in the ‘80s, you went to the Bolshoi, and they had a full orchestra, it was in the Bolshoi Theater, and the dancers were just phenomenal. I mean, Russia is a much, much more cultured country than the United States. The people are much more cultured. You talk to them about arts, about literature – they have a real sense of what’s beautiful in the world, although they are the most pessimistic people I’ve ever met in the world… I’ll tell you one story that is typical, last time I was there in 2005, we were driving around Moscow, and we drove by a new12-storey building. It was built with black glass and chrome and whole city block around it was in wrought iron and sculptures. I said that it was not there 2 years ago, so what is this? I was told it is one of the seven new offices of the gas company that is now being privatized. I was told that the building was interesting because it was built by the national gas company that has not paid its employees in 7 years, because it has no money. I asked “How they could afford buildings like this if they had no money?” But I got no answer. I then asked “Why don’t you do something? Why don’t you protest?” And the answer typified for me the Russian essence of pessimism. I was told, “It’s bad. But it’s always bad. And when you try to do something, it gets worse.” I was like, Wow, how depressing!

But, I spent a lot of time, and what I was going to say, I saw things began to degrade. Because then, they no longer put performances on very often in the Bolshoi Theater. When I would come, they would take me to the Performance Hall in the Kremlin, and it would be recorded music, no orchestra, and the dancers were ok, but not great. I would run into more and more Russian scientists who were visiting scientists in Heidelberg or in Rome or in different places in the United States. They came to the U.S. and Europe as visiting scientists and got may be 20 percent of what you pay an American or European staff member. But they are happy since it was 5 times more than they could get in Russia.

SH: Why is Russia not putting money into neutrinos and fundamental neutron physics? The Soviet Union did.

TB: Things really degenerated, fairly rapidly, and glasnost and perestroika did not work as advertised. Under the Soviet Union research was very highly regarded; it was a valuable enterprise. Moscow University had very high standards; the people it produced were comparable to anything the West could produce; and Russia took great pride in that. It was a field where they could compete, and do as well or better than anyone else. Especially in theory – they had issues with some of the investments in large-scale science, but they still invested in it. That’s changed. You don’t see people in Russia who support the sciences the way they did previously. So they lost the very strong reputation in science, because I think they lost some of their best talent because of the economic problems Russia had after the Soviet Union collapsed.

AK: Can you put any kind of measure on that?

TB: I would say, of the really talented physicists I know, probably one out of 5 had left Russia completely; another one out of 5 were visiting somewhere else, they were not going to go back, and another one out of 5 were trying to find someplace to go. And, of course, it’s the best people who get the offers.

Los Alamos is still collaborating with the Russian Scientific Institutes. For example there is a collaboration being led by Dr. Steve Elliott on double beta decay. But it’s just come to a standstill. The Russians were providing enriched germanium-71 to the U.S. collaboration. They would enrich it in Russia, then send it over here, and then they would come and work on the experiment. And that stopped completely. No more transfer of materials, no visits.

AK: What was the explanation?

TB: Bad relations. It is now the worst since I’ve seen it since I started interacting with the Russians for the first time in early 1985. They were able to do things back then that they just can’t do now. And everybody is holding on. Now a lot of the top scientists have left or they take sabbaticals somewhere. They are still very proud of Russia. There’s this psyche of Russia being great. That’s been challenged in the last several years, and I think that’s part of the reason for these very poor relations right now. Russia wants to be a world player, but they have lost over the last decade a lot of their culture, a lot of their scientists, and a lot of investment has gone to other places. They are trying to reestablish their proper place in the world. And the world has changed. And I am not sure about the United States holding a premier place in the world anymore. In my opinion, the country that is rising is China. The future is probably going to be Chinese as much as anything else. I have reservations about that too. I visited Tibet. Tibet opened my eyes about the Chinese.

SH: Do you keep in touch now, neutrino conferences or what?

TB: Yes, we see them once in a while. I am not directly involved in new programs at this point. I retired from the lab to work on the economic development program, which keeps me very busy. It is very challenging in a different way.

I actually had two collaborations with Russians. One was in neutrino research. The other was in fundamental neutron physics. I worked with Anatoly Serebrov and his group at the Gatchina reactor close to St. Petersburg. We collaborated on several experiments. I went over to Gatchina a number of times and I’ve seen the Amber Hall at the Catherine Palace, which is absolutely incredible. So I spent time in St. Petersburg as well as in Moscow with them, and again, we could provide things they could not easily get in terms of materials, equipment, and so on. We signed contracts to work with them. In that case, they would do specific set-up work for experiments for us. The contracts were usually worth $25,000 or so a year. We collaborated as well on joint research where they would do part of it, we do part of it here, and we needed both parts to come to a scientific conclusion.

This would have been in the mid-90s, around 1994 to 1998 or 1999.

AK: And when you signed these contracts, was it out of Los Alamos?

TB: Yes, and it was with the approval of DOE. We continued that relationship probably to about 2003 or 2004. It had been sort of on and off depending on our funding level and what joint research we were working on at the time. But the Gatchina reactor was an old reactor and had a number of issues of upkeep and so on. They had to struggle to keep up with the research going on in Europe, the United States, and Japan. What made that possible was the remarkable strength and capabilities of the Russian scientists.

SH: What was special about it?

TB: It was a pure research reactor where they could bring out some neutron beams which weren’t readily available at other facilities. They had both very cold and fast neutron beams coming out of the reactor. Really, it was as much the quality of the research group as anything else. We got to know them because I started a program at Los Alamos on ultracold neutrons back in the 90s, which has now evolved, into an international user facility at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (LANSCE), because of ultracold neutrons. We have seven research groups coming in to do research there. And again, Russian scientists are incredibly smart, they are very well trained, and nothing stops them. They find ways to overcome almost any difficulty that you can think of or you can imagine, things that in U.S. or in Europe, people would give up. There, they are very strong, tough, very proud people.

SH: Did you learn to speak Russian?

TB: I can understand it fairly well but am rusty now.

SH: Did your Russian colleagues speak English?

TB: Yes, and that’s why scientists don’t learn other languages, which is too bad. Every conference is in English, and you never get a chance to really learn and use another language. We had students and postdocs in our research working here with the Russians, but when they went to Russia, they did not understand Russian. And since they were only around for a couple of years, there was not so much incentive for them to learn Russian.

SH: So now, you are saying, the U.S., the U.S.-Russian scientific collaboration has essentially just stopped; do you see each other at conferences?

TB: Yes, but it is tough for the Russians to even come up with travel money anymore. In U.S., it is the same way too. The agencies are cutting back, they are restricting not who can go, but how many people, how much money you can spend on travel and conferences and so on. We had some excess capacity in the system before. That gave you some freedom, and the ability to go and try new things. Now you are much more accountable and restricted. All that means that the growth of science is not supported in the way it was in the past. I saw this too starting to happen even back in 2002 or 2003. We were still working with the Russians and one morning this guy comes storming into my room with his trench coat on. He flashes his badge and says he is there from the FBI. He did not even say Hi. He said, “Who the hell told you can do this?” I said, you guys, the U.S. government, is paying me to do this. He said, “I need to see everything you’ve got. I need to go through all your files. This is just not right. I am going to be here for a month, I have an office set up here, and you need to bring everything over.”

SH: Where was this?

TB: In my office in Los Alamos. I said, “Why don’t you tell me what you are looking for?” “No, I need to see everything.” And so, I packed up two boxes – I have cabinets all over the place full of my files – and I sent it over to him. And he said, “What the hell am I supposed to do with all this stuff?” I said, “You told me you wanted it. Copy it, send it back to me, and I will start sending you the rest since this is just 10 percent of my files on our work with Russia,” He didn’t want to do to all that work, so he didn’t contact me again, and that was the end of it. The strange thing was that happened after the end of the Cold War. There was a time lag, apparently between when things happened in the Cold War and we were now friends, in the early 2000s, and trying to work with the Russians. But, you know, it seems like no one told the FBI that. And in Russia, things like that would happen too.

SH: I think the Russians would get a kick out of that story, it happens even in the U.S. So, when you talk to your colleagues, the neutrino and neutron guys, did they know you were working at Los Alamos?

TB: Yes, they came over and visited.

SH: Did you ever talk about well, their end?

TB: Now, that was interesting. I took a group of them to the Bradbury Science Museum, and at one place in the museum, they had a map of targets in Russia for our ICBMs to hit. Their question was, “Why are you aiming all these things at us, why are you doing this?” Well, it’s a good question. They did not talk about those programs. Now in Russia, from what I’ve seen, you don’t have an equivalent of those programs, they don’t really have an equivalent lab to Los Alamos. They have really first-class basic research and really first-class weapons programs that are much more compartmentalized and segmented in Russia, and people don’t cross over very much between basic research and weapons physics. Personally, I think that kind of crossover is very healthy for both basic research and applications to national defense. Los Alamos is much stronger because of the way it is organized. The system in Russia just doesn’t support that type of interaction.

SH: It turns out, their Los Alamos, VNIIEF in Sarov, actually has a lot more basic research than you would think. It does, but, they were not that well known. They did have academicians in those places that would be known for the basic research they did or for the weapons-related work. But they particularly, when we worked with them in the 90s and early 2000s, they were much less known in Russia than we knew them. It’s interesting. In the Russian Academy of Sciences, they just knew nothing about these people.

TB: Glasnost could also be used internally in Russia. People would then know what other people were doing. If you look at places like Los Alamos, or Sandia, or Livermore, all those places have user facilities of some sort or another, where you’d bring in the scientific community. That serves the labs by making connections with the broader scientific community. And visitors see, while there is a fence over there, anyone can go to CINT (Center for Integrated Nanotechnology) at Sandia or Los Alamos, so the labs are not closed the way they were in World War II. In other research areas like electronics you can ask visiting scientists and people from the private sector you say “Do you know that we have the MESA (MicroElectron Systems Assembly) at Sandia that can build semiconductor devices for you?” Visitors usually respond by saying “Really? Can we do that?” And the answer is “Well, we cannot take you in since it is behind the fence in a classified area, but if you give us a design for something, we could in fact build it for you (for a cost of course).” People find out things going on behind the fence once they visit the labs here. I don’t know if that’s the case in Russia.

SH: It’s not. The cities are still closed, Sarov and Snezhinsk, and Russian citizens can’t get in there. They are building their stockpile stewardship program that started to take off in the last 10 years or so. They are building a big laser facility, a mini-NIF, as well as accelerators.

SH: In terms of your own scientific accomplishments, what are you most proud of – where, if anyplace, does the Russian cooperation comes in?

TB: Of the research I have done, I am proudest of two things. One is our tritium beta decay experiment. There were only a few of us who carried out that experiment. It was a great challenge and fun because we were very well supported. And it yielded an important result that made an important contribution to our understanding of the role that neutrinos play in the Universe. But I would have to say SAGE is at the top, actually. That is because when we started the experiment there was only inconclusive evidence that there was something exciting and interesting going on with neutrinos coming from the Sun. It required a commitment of 10 years – it was not something we could do in 6 months. It tied me not just to the Russian scientific community but to the larger scientific community because what I was known for personally was SAGE since I was the leader of the U.S-European effort on SAGE. I got invited to the international conferences to talk about the work that I did with the Russians. The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) experiment, in some ways really crystallized things. It had a huge effect and received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics. I played an important part when it started up, but there were 267 people who worked on SNO. For SAGE it was Gavrin on the Russian side and me on the U.S. side. We had 10 to 12 people on the U.S. side. The Russians had up to 25 people, scientists and technicians. It taught me a lot about the world that I would never have understood otherwise. Seeing the Russian perspective on life made me really think a lot about my own life, because it’s very different in Russia. I have to tell you just one amusing story. I had a technician, Mel Anaya, who stayed in a room in the condo at Baksan right next door to my room. When Mel would go over to Baksan, he always got up before 5 am to start work. We were putting fiber optics from where we were living and the office buildings so we could check our computers from the cottage. Mel would get out there at 4:00 or 4:30 in the morning, pick up a shovel and work on the trench for the fiber optics cable. The Russians felt that since the Americans are out there working, we have to be out there too. After a week of this, Gavrin came to me and said, “Please tell Mel to stop. He is killing my people.”

SH: And he is the guy who said that Hamish was not working hard enough.

TB: Yes. Well both of our perspectives changed over time as we learned from each other.

One other thing I am also proud of is starting the ultracold neutron (UCN) program here at Los Alamos. When I started this effort, there was no place in the U.S. that produced UCN. There was one place in France where you could go to do ultracold neutron research. The ultracold neutrons are so interesting because they go so slowly you can actually bottle them. You can put neutrons into a bottle, close a lid on it, and walk around with neutrons in the bottle. The neutron is a fundamental nuclear particle, like protons. Being able to bottle neutrons allows you to do all sorts of interesting things because you can watch them decay. When you observe neutrons from a reactor, they go zipping by at 2000 meters a second and you have only a very short time to look at them. Now, you can just sit with the ultracold neutrons in a bottle and study them very, very carefully.

SH: What’s the temperature – what’s the energy?

TB: In nano eV. They are traveling at less than 7 meters a second. That’s about the maximum velocity at which you can trap them. When we started this effort at Los Alamos, the accelerator had shifted from producing pions to producing neutrons. It is now called LANSCE (Los Alamos Neutron Science Center). In our very first run to make UCN, we produced less than a dozen UCN. Now we make millions of them and we have research groups coming from all over the U.S. and the world to do research with UCN. It’s something that I started on my own and got people interested in supporting. Now other people have taken over the UCN program and expanded it.

SH: It’s a fantastic story. You know, the last things you said that’s exactly the way I felt, not only what you said, but also, they gave me a much better appreciation for the arts. I was never an opera fan before, and not much of an arts and museum fan. I got that appreciation through my visits to Russia because my colleagues there were so interested in the arts and culture.

TB: And they would always make a point of including arts and culture in our visits. In the U.S., we don’t do that. Having gone to Russia gave me a different perspective on life to see how people live, how they approach life, their philosophy, and so on. It also connected me to the rest of the global scientific community.

With the Russians, we worked very hard, but we also took time off and drove around. I got to see a lot of the countryside and churches, and people, and art museums. I mean art is everywhere there. Here, in Santa Fe, we’ve got a tremendous amount here, but most places in the U.S., you get into a steel building, and that’s it. We don’t stop often enough to appreciate things.

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