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:: By Mary Ruth Yoe

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Features ::

Argonne Almanac

When you discuss the role of Argonne and other national laboratories, you often invoke the concept of Jeffersonian science. Why?

photo:  argonne almanacBasic research is motivated by two different views of why you do the research. One has to do with curiosity. What guides you, at some level, is a sense of aesthetics: have you constructed a way of thinking about a problem that actually leads to a solution that answers the question, Why does it work that way? And, if so, is there an intrinsic beauty to the construct, a sense of elegance, a particularly economical solution? Jeffersonian science is shorthand for the other view, basic research that begins with a practical problem to solve. It’s also called use-driven or use-inspired research: an engineer building something may find, for example, that there’s a challenge, a part of the problem that requires a better theoretical understanding of how it works.

The Department of Energy—or its Office of Science, to which Argonne reports—takes a mixed curiosity-driven and Jeffersonian approach. Our energy future is right up front in its mission. Energy is in the department’s name. But part of its charter is to study the nature of matter and energy. That goal drives its support for single-purpose labs like Fermilab, whose mission is not how to produce or distribute energy but how to gain a deeper understanding of energy’s structure. Fermilab’s research has societal impacts, but they are incidental. For Argonne, the practical purpose has always been up front, but we too do much fundamental work in material science, chemistry, high-energy physics, nuclear physics, biology, and so forth.

For much of Argonne’s history, its practical purpose was bound up with nuclear-energy research. That research has left a legacy of both accomplishments and materials that must be disposed of safely.

Argonne was the nation’s leading center for the development of nuclear-energy technologies, with much basic R&D in reactor and nuclear-fuel science and technology carried out in Illinois—although a lot of that work was moved in the 1950s and ’60s to what was known as Argonne–West, a satellite lab in Idaho Falls, Idaho. One key legacy left here is of course the expertise—the human resources—that form the basis for nuclear-energy research; indeed, it is this human legacy that is part of the bedrock of current discussions about the revival of the nuclear-power industry.

Another, less welcome legacy left at the Illinois site is the nuclear material used in our research, including feed stocks and “spent” fuel. Because of restrictions on its ultimate disposal, we have not been able to get rid of such material, virtually all of which is no longer needed in our active research programs. The time scale for removing those materials is set by external events—in particular, the approval process for a permanent, national repository, such as Yucca Mountain.

Why is it important that Argonne be managed by a University of Chicago team—for the lab and for the University?

Let’s talk first about the importance to the lab. The essential character of the contractor is extremely important in how research gets done. The University of Chicago is an institution that is not about money but rather about excellence in inquiry, about the challenge to create first-rate research and bring first-rate minds to bear on national issues. As an institution that runs on “soft money” and has no endowment, Argonne lives on its wits. Having a contractor whose central ethos is excellence in living by one’s wits—what more could you ask for?

For the University, it’s a more complicated story. During a substantial fraction of the lab’s life, nuclear-energy research was a responsibility that the University had but could not itself carry out, for the simple reason that the discipline is heavily engineering-focused, and the University does not have an engineering school. The lab could carry out such research. So the intellectual coupling was not all that strong, and when it did exist—such as in nuclear physics, high-energy physics, or material science—it was not the main driver for the lab.

Today Argonne offers a similar opportunity for the University to enter new areas of inquiry that otherwise would be very difficult to start up, areas that by their nature are interdisciplinary—and have a strong applied component. The major area where the University has applied sciences is in biology, where it’s called translational research, and we have to ask whether Chicago has a self-interest in expanding to other areas of science in which the applied aspects have become intellectual drivers for the entire discipline, as has happened in many areas of biology. Argonne’s new partnership with three other Illinois institutions—Northwestern, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign—also comes into play. Each has strong engineering and applied-science programs, so there’s a natural connection to Argonne’s applied programs, and through Argonne, new opportunities for Chicago.

In announcing the start of October’s contract, Argonne set out five new goals. How do those goals, including a plan to upgrade the Advanced Photon Source, differ from those of the immediate past?

What’s new is the goal-setting perspective. When Raymond Orbach, DOE’s undersecretary for science, came in as head of the Office of Science, he brought a fresh view of how the national labs should interact with their managers. He thought of the DOE as an investor and, as an investor, wanted to know the rate of return on the DOE’s investment. It was the responsibility of lab management to demonstrate that the money was well spent. Each lab now has a business plan, and the contract’s goals were developed in response to the request for proposals that basically said, Here is the business plan; how do you intend to meet its requirements? The goals are our vision of how Argonne will be transformed.

Which goal will be the most challenging?

Each is challenging, but the challenges are very different. For the first goal, optimizing and upgrading the Advanced Photon Source, the issue is developing a clear vision of what kinds of science we want the upgraded Advanced Photo Source to do and—this is the optimization part—translating that vision into the most economical way of achieving the science goals. This relies on making sure that funding is there and that we engage the excellent scientists and engineers to make the breakthrough designs to achieve the science goals within a constrained budget. We must do all that while making sure that our plans are executed in close partnership with the DOE and the Office of Science.

The second goal, integrating energy, environment, and economic research for a more sustainable future, may not sound nitty-gritty, but it is. In the standard state of affairs, energy technology, environmental impact, and economic impact are studied in isolation. Yet it’s clear that they are interrelated. So the goal is to look at the technological question from a systems point of view, systems that interact in many spheres—technological, economic, social, political, and environmental—and which create feedback on the technological issues. Studying coal, for example, means looking at environmental issues: CO2 loading, mine safety, slumping caused by close-to-the-surface mines. How do we sequester the carbon, and how do we separate the CO2 from the waste stream?

Energy systems are all coupled, and they’re coupled to things that normally we only relate in conversation but don’t relate in a quantitive or actionable way on the policy level. Do the policy-makers have the appropriate tools to make decisions? Our job at Argonne is to facilitate making the decisions by providing the tools by which consequences and costs can be weighed.

Very few people do this, and very few people who do this do it very well. Typically, what’s not covered is the understanding of particular energy technologies at the highly technical, detailed level, as well as the highly technical, detailed level for the economic and social spheres. We’re well positioned to do exactly that.

A third goal is to develop an exotic-beams facility. There the issue is creating a plan to maximize the science we can do to understand the nature of matter at the nuclear level—which is also related to questions about the nature of the universe—in a way that fits within the DOE budget. We have to be innovative because it’s clear that a blue-sky approach is not supportable.

Another goal, to develop petascale systems [a petabyte is 2 to the 50th power—Ed.] that support data-intensive computing, is all about a scientific revolution, one that will turn computing into a truly experimental discipline. Take a discipline like economics, in which experimentation of the kind one normally associates with the physical or biological sciences is not practical or feasible: computing at the petascale may allow such disciplines access to an experimental component that leads to realistic exploration of complex social behaviors, using tools such as agent-based simulation. In astronomy, this transformation has already happened; astrophysicists use computation as an experimental laboratory. In the past, computation and theory were thought to be of a kind, with simulations used primarily as a way of stepping beyond what one could do with pencil and paper. But numerical simulations have turned out to define an entirely different discipline, where you use computation as an exploratory tool, the way you use experiments, and then theory comes in to try to understand the computation, just as theory enters into the fray in trying to understand experimental results.

Of the lab’s approximately 2,900 employees, about 100, or 3 percent of the lab’s workforce, have academic appointments at Chicago. What’s being done to strengthen ties between Argonne and the University?

There have always been joint appointments and initiatives between the lab and the University, but they used to be somewhat sporadic. Over the past five years, we have been building bridges in a more strategic way. The key element is that the leadership of these initiatives are people who have their feet in both camps. Take, for example, Kevin White. As director of the new Argonne–U of C Institute for Genomic & Systems Biology, he is a professor of human genetics and ecology & evolution, and he’s a staff scientist at the lab. Ian Foster directs the joint Argonne–University Computation Institute and is also associate director of Argonne’s Mathematics and Computer Science Division and a professor of computer science. The two worlds that these researchers live in make contact through their activity and their research.

Such ties, and the science that results, can transform disciplines. Imagine a world in which subjects like sociology or economics turn into disciplines that are extremely computationally driven. Those disciplines differ hugely from the physical and biological sciences. There you explore the world by doing experiments, whereas in the social sciences, you’re not going to manipulate societies, or individuals within a society, and so your freedom to experiment in social disciplines is sharply circumscribed.

But at the scale that one can compute today, you can imagine a method to conduct thought experiments that go far beyond speculation. The Sims game offers a toy version of what social scientists could do in a serious way: posit how individuals interact, posit attributes of individuals, and ask questions about the collective behavior that emerges from the individuals’ interaction. Computation could let researchers look at how a given energy solution is deployed from technical points of view—physics, chemistry, engineering, and so on—and from social, political, and economic perspectives: What level of investment is needed to introduce the technology? How hard is it? What are the economic consequences? The social implications?

The same thing translates to other disciplines, such as archaeology, social anthropology, and physical anthropology. Argonne already collaborates with the Oriental Institute, studying social interactions in the Euphrates and Tigris region [see “Next Generation]. It’s amazing how complex the issues are and what computations allow you to do. Such research is truly transformative, about establishing a Chicago perspective on disciplines—and Argonne offers a chance to do this once again.

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