As I scanned the room, I had their attention. Some people looked like they thought I was joking while others seemed to be waiting for more information. It was August, 2021, and I had just upturned an otherwise routine Monday morning team meeting by announcing that I was retiring as Director of the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. It was a surprise to most—I had never talked widely about retirement, though I was well beyond normal retirement age. I hadn’t wanted to talk about it early and be discounted as a short-timer. As Yoda said, “Do or do not—there is no try.” For me, it was “stay or stay not,” and the time had come for me to stay not. I answered the team’s questions. Why? Because it’s time. Where will I go? Nowhere, I’ll stay right here, in the thick of science at the Lab. This is where I want to be.
In 1979, my second year at Los Alamos, the Lab’s director, Harold Agnew, announced his retirement. When asked “Why now?” his answer was simply that it was time for someone else to have a turn. Forty-three years later, I remembered Agnew’s words and realized that I felt the same way. It was time to move on. But unlike many of my friends and colleagues who had been happy to stop coming to work, for me retirement didn’t mean no work; it meant new work. Being a scientist is more than merely being paid to do science. I was 69 years old and ready for new challenges and new adventures.
The pursuit of adventure has guided much of my life. It has been my true north and it is what brought me to Los Alamos. Fresh out of Caltech, with the ink still drying on my astrophysics Ph.D., I came here because it offered the best of my two favorite kinds of exploration: science and the out-of-doors. So far neither has run dry—the excitement I felt as a child and teenager is unabated.
I was interested in science as far back as I can remember. It was the dawn of the space age and science was everywhere. When I was four years old, my dad and I watched Sputnik fly over from our front lawn. I was an early reader and my mother kept me supplied with science books. She had a college degree in home economics, and my father was a high school graduate. He grew up in a democratic Czechoslovakia, which lost its freedom during and after WWII. He was drafted into the Czech communist army, defected to the Americans via West Germany, and joined the U.S. Army, where he met my mother while stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington state. We stayed in Washington for the most part, though my family did spend a year in California and three years in Germany while my father was still in the Army. After leaving the Army, he ran a very small construction company—just him and a couple of guys.
The pursuit of adventure has guided much of my life. It has been my true north and it is what brought me to Los Alamos.
My upbringing was firmly working class, but my parents were very supportive of my pursuits and there was no doubt that I was college-bound. I chose Whitman College because my high school girlfriend was going there. Although my motivation wasn’t particularly strategic, it was actually a solid choice for my career development because the liberal arts education I received there, culminating in a B.A. in physics, has been an asset for communicating to diverse audiences throughout my career.
I’ve had several titles at Los Alamos, from staff scientist to program director. I’ve worked on a lot of different projects, including laser fusion and space sensing. My career has been deeply gratifying despite virtually none of it being planned in advance. I’m not sure how much of it could have been planned, even if I had tried. I followed my science (space, broadly) and my love of adventure wherever they took me, and in each role I learned more about how the world works—from a scientific perspective but also from a human-making-his-way-on-Earth perspective.
In the recent movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer, he says, “If I could find a way to combine physics and New Mexico, life would be perfect.” I feel the same way.
At Caltech there was plenty of intellectual exploration, but I missed wild and open spaces. On my interview trip, when the plane touched down at Los Alamos Airport in November of 1977, I felt that I was coming home to a place that I was seeing for the first time. I couldn’t wait to start exploring both the Pajarito Plateau and the Laboratory.
I was already married when I arrived at the Lab and my goal was a permanent job. I declined a Director’s postdoctoral fellowship in astrophysics in favor of the stability of a staff scientist position in laser fusion. This was the first of several shifts in scientific focus area for me, but one great thing about the Lab is that a person can move around between different fields, even switch between fundamental and applied science, and find satisfying work to do. So I dug into laser fusion.
The Los Alamos laser fusion program was an attempt to leapfrog a similar, better-funded program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, using low-cost, long-wavelength, carbon dioxide lasers. I was tasked with figuring out why a particular x-ray spectrometer wasn’t functioning correctly. The signals were too high and the guess was that they were being contaminated by electric noise. I figured out that the spectrometer was working just fine; the signals were huge because of the way the long-wavelength laser interacted with matter. This meant that carbon dioxide laser fusion couldn’t work—most of the laser’s energy flowed into energetic electrons, which made the target too hot to compress. Scientifically I discovered that the experiment wouldn’t work; personally I discovered that good science isn’t always welcome, especially if it derails hopes for a nascent program.
At the Lab, a person can move around between different fields, even switch between fundamental and applied science, and find satisfying work to do.
Shortly thereafter, a staff scientist position opened in the Earth and Space Sciences (ESS) Division. It was a chance for me to return to basic astrophysics, so I applied and got the job. I happily dove into a treasure trove of data from the Vela 5B satellite, which tracked long-term changes in the x-ray sky. I worked with the late Jim Terrell, and together we made multiple discoveries about peculiar double stars that included compact objects—a black hole or neutron star—using data that had been in the can for years. I often advise young folks that they can succeed the same way I did: data is easier to collect than to analyze, so there are troves of data everywhere that are worth your attention. Find one and dig in.
During my time in ESS, I took advantage of every exploration opportunity that was afforded me. In 1985, I went to Germany to study how x-ray stars vary over time. While there, I collaborated with several other scientists, looking at the data from the first European x-ray satellite, EXOSAT. Once again, discovery emerged. This time it was a neutron star x-ray source that circles its companion in an 11-minute “year” and a noise tone—not a pure note—from the brightest x-ray source in the sky that had something to do with instabilities in the material circling it.
In the late 1980s, I turned my attention from data to instruments—specifically, new instruments to probe the universe in pursuit of better, more sensitive measurements of the ever-changing x-ray sky.
One of the biggest disappointments of my career came at this time. I led the development of an instrument at the Lab called MOXE (Monitoring x-ray Equipment), that was built to fly on the Soviet Spectrum-x-Gamma mission. Although MOXE was built and ready to go, it never flew because the Soviet Union collapsed and the mission was delayed to the point of obsolescence.
Another instrumentation project I led, one that did fly, was an array of x-ray telescopes that flew on the ALEXIS (Array of Low-Energy X-ray Imaging Sensors) satellite. ALEXIS was the Laboratory’s first entry into the small-satellite field and was a sort of precursor to modern CubeSats. Los Alamos is now regularly launching CubeSats—miniature satellites often smaller than a breadbox—with missions in Earth sensing, gamma-ray astronomy, and lightning monitoring. Space-sensing technology has evolved tremendously during my years at the Lab, and it has been a pleasure to both participate in it and to watch from the front row.
After 16 years of digging into data and following space science wherever it took me, a new sort of adventure came my way in 1995, when I was recruited to a management position at the Lab. So I hung up my x-ray telescopes and took my career into a hard right turn.
Zig, then zag
It was because of my experience leading big projects like MOXE and ALEXIS that I was tapped to be lead project leader—the equivalent of a current-day program manager. I would lead the people who led projects for nuclear proliferation detection and for chemical and biological threat detection.
I didn’t have much leadership training, but I relied on the people skills that I had honed leading outdoor adventures, and I was motivated to learn whatever I could. Leading the threat-reduction program broadened my understanding of national security technology, particularly for nuclear nonproliferation, and it helped me think about the Lab’s mission from a broader perspective. I spent time in Washington, D.C., including extended spells at two different agencies, learning their challenges. The problems that we were focused on during the late 1990s—mainly nuclear proliferation and underground facilities—are still with us today, but in 1999 my next opportunity arose, and again, I took my career in a new direction. I stepped back from formal management to return to science as chief scientist for the Nonproliferation and International Security Division—the forerunner of today’s Global Security Directorate. The job had not been part of any career strategy, but it seemed like an interesting and logical next step.
A chief scientist job is a funny one. It’s a fancy-sounding title, but the job is essentially to act as an advisor to the boss, say a division leader, and success depends largely on your partnership with that person. I had the pleasure of working with the late Terry Hawkins. Terry valued deep thinking into the science that underlies national security, so he and I together began thinking deeply about the science needed to prevent nuclear proliferation. I concluded that every step forward in nonproliferation was a step towards ubiquitous sensing—seeing everything, everywhere, all the time, that might pose a nuclear threat.
Despite my steady rising through the ranks and growing leadership role, I was not immune to trouble, and in 2003 I found myself in a bad place at a bad time. In the early 2000s, the Laboratory was on thin ice for its oversight of safety and security. Mistakes had been made and managers were coming down hard on anyone who broke the rules. Then a floppy disk of mine came up missing from a routine inventory. Back then, we stored our floppy disks in safes and destroyed disks that were no longer needed. Inventories were conducted every month, and one of my disks—I’m sure I destroyed it, I just failed to document the destruction—was missing. This would not happen today; we now have much better tools to control sensitive information. I reported the oversight and was immediately suspended, unsure whether I would ever be welcomed back.
I went home, kept my head down, and kept myself busy writing and publishing two research papers. I had learned the value of networking by then, a vital skill not taught in school, and I had a support network of friends and colleagues to keep me whole during this difficult time. I made my case as best I could, writing in my rebuttal of the Lab’s complaint, “In whatever small way I am a spokesperson for the scientific community at Los Alamos, I have a special responsibility to be an exemplar.”
After two months, I was allowed back to my job, but not without a reprimand and a promotion withdrawn. Before the floppy disk incident, I had been offered a promotion from chief scientist to deputy division leader, and now that was off the table. But, though I could not have known it at the time, it was for the best. Once the clouds cleared, good things were in store for me. Things got worse at the Lab before they got better—a serious security incident in mid-2004 led to a shutdown of the entire Lab, and in 2006, the National Nuclear Security Administration terminated the Lab’s operating contract with the University of California.
From this tumultuous chapter of my career, I learned that, more likely than not, we will each be treated unfairly at some point, perhaps simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The floppy-disk event was my own fault, but management’s reaction was amplified by its own fragile standing. Mine was not the only career seriously damaged during that time, and I can think of just one other person who made a strong career recovery after being caught in the safety and security whirlpool. She and I both owned our mistakes and kept moving forward, trusting that things would work out if we didn’t give up. Indeed, the Lab’s transition following the subsequent reassignment of its operating contract opened a new opportunity for me, one that occupied me for the last third of my career.
In 2007, the new Los Alamos senior management team reviewed the internal LDRD program, which provides institutional funding for selected Laboratory research and development projects. The team concluded that the program needed to be better coupled to the Lab’s main strategies. This led to a reconfiguration that moved the LDRD leadership position up the organization chart, closer to senior Laboratory leadership. Now at division-leader level, the LDRD director would report to Principal Associate Director (later Laboratory Director) Terry Wallace. Having run LDRD projects and served on LDRD panels for years, I was familiar with the program. Having had the deputy division leader job offer rescinded, I was available and looking to make a move. I was now in the right place at the right time and I applied for the LDRD Director position. I was offered the job, accepted it, and embarked on my fifth Los Alamos career and the best job that I ever had.
Once the clouds cleared, good things were in store for me.
In announcing me as the new director of LDRD, Terry Wallace wrote, “For more than 25 years, Bill has been an integrating force for science in threat reduction and its predecessor organizations. Parlaying Bill’s role as a ‘champion for creativity,’ from threat reduction to all of Los Alamos National Laboratory, is a tremendous gain for our institution.” This vote of confidence from Wallace was a salve to the reprimand I had received several years earlier.
I remained LDRD Director for 15 years, well beyond typical retirement age, because the job was too good to leave. Part of the job was to do what I had always done and loved—to think deeply about and engage with all the science being done across the Lab. I saw a lot of great things happening and got to define the Lab’s investment priorities—not by picking them myself, but by bringing Laboratory leadership together to make important and hard decisions. It was a job in which it was hard to lose—we could either do well or we could do really well. No matter what we picked, great things were going to come out of it.
LDRD is at the heart of the scientific enterprise at Department of Energy (DOE) national labs. By continual, incremental, improvement, the LDRD program at Los Alamos is recognized by many as the leader amongst the DOE labs. We did not achieve excellence all at once, but instead committed to making every year’s program better than the previous years’.
As director of LDRD, I learned what an incredible Laboratory we have, what talent comes to our mesas, and how important our values are to mission and execution. The LDRD program is driven by values familiar to all of us: technical excellence, transparency, and diversity and inclusion. We codified those values into an LDRD value statement that emphasizes technical excellence in the projects we fund, transparency in our selection process, and a commitment to diversity and inclusion in all forms.
It was a job in which it was hard to lose—we could either do well or we could do really well.
After 15 years leading LDRD, it was once again time for a change. As Harold Agnew said in 1979, “…it would not be right to overstay my turn.” I decided to hand off the best job at the Laboratory to someone else. I had been mentoring my deputy, Laura Stonehill, for three years and was thrilled when she competed for, and won, the directorship. Working side by side with outstanding colleagues, we have taken LDRD to new levels of excellence, relevance, and rigor, and I have no doubt that LDRD will continue to thrive under Laura’s excellent leadership.
People sometimes ask each other if they would quit their job if they won the lottery. I know my own answer: No.
I feel like I did win the lottery, in a sense. Twice. First, by landing the most rewarding job I could have asked for, and second, by retiring able to do what I want—which has me where the science is, in an office a few steps down the hallway from where I sat in 1981. In 2022, my old division, formerly ESS and now ISR (Intelligence and Space Research), kindly welcomed me back as a Laboratory Fellow and guest scientist.
I’m still chasing intellectual adventure and digging in at every opportunity. I am presently involved in a project to sense objects in deep space and in studies of missile defense, the latter of which required that I relearn how to write a computer program.
I believe that the Lab now is a better place than when I came here. Its contributions to the nation are more important than they ever were, it is a more inclusive and welcoming place, and the commitment to scientific excellence is as strong as ever. I have been humbled by the commitment to excellence that I have found around me every day of the past 45 years.
I feel a strong obligation to the next generation of scientists. I gladly mentor whoever shows up at my office door and I teach several formal courses in project management and proposal writing aimed at early career researchers. These courses got me thinking lately about the importance of trust in our careers, and how we should consider, with each step we take, whether we are building or risking the trust of everyone around us.
I have been humbled by the commitment to excellence that I have found around me every day of the past 45 years
A résumé is just a CliffsNotes to a life of lived experiences; it doesn’t reflect the twists and turns where real life tends to happen. Over the years and through my six-and-counting careers at Los Alamos, I have learned to be true to myself and my science, and to balance career success with the people that we love and love us, and with outdoor adventure. My story shows that great careers need not be planned out and that there are many paths to success. Each path will have opportunities and false turns alike, and it will still lead to somewhere great. Just keep moving forward.
I am an optimist, believing, as William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, that man and woman will not only endure: they will prevail. Science and technology hold the key to that future, as they offer unlimited opportunities to improve the human condition, if we use them with love in our hearts.