Wicked Things at Sandia

A Nuclear Family Vacation

Wicked Things at Sandia

A Nuclear Family Vacation

Wicked Things at Sandia
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
July 14 2005 10:15 AM

A Nuclear Family Vacation



Click here for a slide show. KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M.—A chipper secretary placed a cup of coffee down in the unclassified conference room at Sandia National Laboratories. Gerold Yonas thanked her politely, staring intently at a pile of printed-out PowerPoint slides.

"So much easier than a slap in the face," he said, glancing at the caffeinated sludge. He didn't crack a smile.


With his neatly trimmed beard and regimental tie, Yonas looked every bit the Reagan-era policy wonk. A longtime Sandia employee, Yonas served during the Reagan administration as the chief scientist for the Strategic Defense Initiative—better known as Star Wars, the "peace shield" meant to protect America from Soviet nuclear attack. But most of his career has been at Sandia, where, since 1998, he has run something called the Advanced Concepts Group.

The Advanced Concepts Group thinks about what Yonas calls "wicked things." By "wicked," what he really means is complex—a problem that changes when you apply a solution.

"The nature of complex, wicked problems is they tend to involve people," Yonas said, sliding the briefings toward us. "We tend to be complicated and wicked."

The world of weapons scientists is an intimate one, and everyone has a story. One scientist related to us how Yonas, infuriated by a solar tower project at the lab, talked about taking a blowtorch to a frozen turkey and throwing it at the base of the tower. His hope, the story went, was that environmentalists would think solar rays had roasted an endangered whooping crane and push to cancel the boondoggle.


Los Alamos and Livermore call themselves "design labs," and the scientists there ponder the complex physics problems of designing the fissile material for a nuclear weapon. In conversation, they make lofty allusions to Herodotus or hint at the Faustian bargains involved in creating weapons of mass destruction. They also tend to describe the work of Sandia with a wicked put-down—that Sandia is just an "engineering facility." Joan Woodard, who heads the lab's nuclear weapons program, insisted that Sandia, too, is a design lab. The difference, she said, is that Sandia focuses on usable technology.

"We really have a strong ethic of science brought to an application," she told us. "That's a core aspect of our culture."

Perhaps hoping to stake Sandia's own claim to defense intellectualism, former Sandia Director Paul Robinson established the Advanced Concepts Group as an internal think tank at the laboratory. He put his old friend Yonas in charge.

But Sandia would never be mistaken for the college campus atmosphere of Los Alamos and Livermore. There are no scientists wearing sandals and no red bicycles piled up in front of offices. Lockheed Martin runs the lab for the Energy Department, and Sandia employees emphasize their role in creating "products."


To make new products, you need to find problems to solve, and Yonas creates problems. As he puts it, "We're in the mess-making business. We try to invent how to destroy the fabric of American society."

His group includes historians, anthropologists, and political analysts, in addition to scientists, and holds "fests," in which people create "messes" to think about "wicked problems."

What sort of messes?

Race warfare, for starters. For a while, Yonas' group thought about how race warfare might be triggered in the United States. The scenarios his group invented involved biological attacks that would pit one race against another, possibly leading to the destruction of American society.


Asked to name the specific races involved in the warfare, Yonas replied with a curt, "No."

Of course, the problem with those wicked scenarios, at least in the old days, was that they didn't seem all that wicked. The early 1998 simulation concluded an attack on the homeland was impossible, or that if it did happen, it wouldn't elicit a disastrous response. It ended with a sort of happy face: We were all OK.

So what did Yonas think on Sept. 11, 2001? As he recalled it, he turned on the television that morning and said, "Oh, darn." The problem of terrorism was even wickeder than we thought, so it was back to the drawing board. Perhaps we needed a new acronym?

"I told my group that day that here forward we're going to focus our attention on dealing with UTAW," he said.


UTAW (pronounced "Utah") is Ultra-Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare. How should one solve UTAW?

"That's the nature of a wicked problem," Yonas said. "You don't ever come up with solutions."

One of his ideas is to create computer programs, or "hypothesizers," that could predict the future by tracking complex data. But if people are so complex and wicked, how on earth can any computer program ever provide the sort of clarity needed to predict the future?

"It worked in the movie Minority Report," he offered, referring to the Steven Spielberg film in which bald soothsayers immersed in a wading pool predicted the future for Tom Cruise (apparently missing his whirlwind courtship of Katie Holmes, however).

Yonas quickly added that he knew that was only fiction. "Many of our ideas, if you look hard, you'll find them in movies. People accuse me of going to movies rather than thinking hard."

He shrugged his shoulders. Yonas tended to skip questions he didn't like, answering those questions he would prefer you to ask, in a style vaguely reminiscent of Robert McNamara, the Vietnam War-era defense secretary.

"Another thing we're really pushing very hard is golf balls," Yonas said, again without cracking a smile.

Is that an acronym?

"No," he replied. "It's a real golf ball; one that can feel, think, and decide, autonomously guiding itself into the hole."

It would also make for a great golf game, he added.

Did Yonas mean unmanned aerial vehicles, robotic systems? No, he replied. "I want a golf ball."

Of course, the idea of scientists inventing technological solutions to complex "wicked" problems is not really new, as Yonas himself is quick to point out. In the 1960s, a group of elite scientists attempted to come up with their own technological panacea. Frustrated by the war in Vietnam, they conceived a sensor barrier that eventually became part of the quixotic McNamara line. Sandia helped build the sensors, which Yonas cites as the precursor to his golf balls.

The sensor barrier was intended to stop infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh trail; sensors developed for the project were credited with helping break the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968. Yonas' "golf balls" concept is supposed to do same thing in urban terrain—letting troops know what's going on around the corner.

Of course, Yonas acknowledged the McNamara line faced a wicked problem: discrimination. "One of my good friends in the Pentagon said, 'You know how many orangutans we bombed because of your damned sensors?' "

Endnote: Sandia National Laboratories are located on Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. The base once housed the National Atomic Museum, which relocated to downtown Albuquerque after 9/11. The museum is organizing a " Blast from the Past" June 15 and 16, 2005, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Trinity atomic test.