Terry C. Wallace Sr.

Igniting a passion for learning

April 26, 2023

Heritage Series Opt

As told by Terry C. Wallace Jr., LANL director emeritus

My father, Terry Wallace Sr., began his career at the Laboratory in 1956 as a uranium chemist with a newly minted Ph.D. from Iowa State. He had gone to Arizona State on an ROTC scholarship and was given the option to complete his ROTC service at Los Alamos after completing his doctoral work. Iowa State University was involved in the Manhattan Project, and today the Department of Energy Ames Laboratory continues to follow that rich tradition of actinide research. In fact, a lot of Iowa State graduates have ended up at the Laboratory. Looking back, what a stroke of luck that was for me.

As a kid growing up in Los Alamos, I didn’t realize what a unique place it was until much later — after I left for college, first to go to New Mexico Tech in Socorro and then to go to Caltech in Pasadena. It was then that I experienced the broader world and saw just how unusual — and special — this town that raised me was.

Family Days at the Lab

Some of my earliest memories of the Laboratory are from Family Days. Today, we have the Family Picnic, but back then, employees could bring their children and spouses into their labs and offices.

For part of his career my father worked in the old Chemistry and Metallurgy building (CMR). I loved Family Days. It was an incredible privilege to be able to go into those facilities and see things that so few people in the world were allowed to see. But things have changed much in the ensuing 60 years: CMR housed radioactive materials, but we were still allowed to go in — even as children.

I’ll never forget when I got to see an RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) made out of neptunium, and I could feel the heat coming off of it. We didn’t wear any protective gear at all. Can you imagine that today?

Unusual teachable moments

My dad was very quiet (hard to believe for those who know me, I’m sure) and didn’t talk a lot about work. But there were a few events in his career that I remember well. 

When I was in high school — around 1973 — the Jackpile uranium mine near Grants found ore that they couldn’t identify, so they sent it to Los Alamos for analysis, which went to my father. So, my dad decided this was a “teachable moment” for me to learn how to do X-ray diffraction.

He brought me with him to the Laboratory to do it. I can’t really recall how I could possibly come into a lab (at that time my father worked at DP East), but it was the first of thousands of X-ray diffraction analyses I did in my career.

The sample from Jackpile ended up being coffinite, which is a radioactive mineral. I remember being surprised at the name when I looked up the diffraction peaks, and wondered if I would just die. Alas, coffinite is named after a geologist, Reuben Coffin.

When I was in college and had my first mineralogy class, I was surprised to learn that none of my other classmates had ever done a diffraction analysis! Los Alamos was a very special place.

Also, my dad would come home with truckloads of discarded stuff from the Laboratory’s salvage yard. 

I grew up in Pajarito Acres in White Rock, in the second house to be built in that development. We had a 

barn. Half the barn was for my mom’s animals, but the other half was for all the stuff my dad picked up from salvage — like fume hoods. So, again, there was all this rare stuff that most people never got to see, and here they were, at our house. I learned tremendous things just by living in close proximity to this wonderful environment.

The power of the Laboratory

Heritage Series

It wasn’t really until I started graduate school at Caltech that I started to have real conversations with my dad about his work at Los Alamos. I recall well a conversation about trying to balance the uranium budget for the planet.

At that time, the general theory was that uranium was highly siderophobic — meaning it could not coexist with iron — and thus had to be in the Earth’s crust. 

But my father had worked on uranium at high temperatures and suggested that work on nuclear fuels showed that there would be total miscibility between uranium dioxide and steel, thus perhaps the iron in the core could behave similarly. In fact, my father and his colleagues decided to test this and published a frequently cited paper stating that there was considerable uranium in the core, and it was the key component of driving the geo dynamo.

 Having these long discussions with my father on topics like how much uranium existed on the planet taught me that scientific breadth is perhaps the most important trait for problem solving. That really shows the power of the Laboratory in the world of science. There were such bright people here who spent their time and energy figuring out why things behaved the way they do — and made discoveries that changed the way we see the world. That’s still true today.

So much of my career was shaped by the people I grew up with around here — not just my dad. I often talk about how we need to foster in children the importance of asking “why” — encouraging them to ask it even when it’s annoying. When I was a kid, we’d go on camping trips with our friends and someone would find a rock and then this long argument would ensue about what kind of rock it was and what the color meant. Everyone was fully involved and had an opinion.

I didn’t realize until much later that that wasn’t everyone’s experience growing up — to be surrounded by people who were so passionate about discovery. It really ignited in me a passion for learning. I’m eternally grateful for that.

Editor’s note: Terry C. Wallace Sr. died on Oct. 7, 2011.