Ancho Canyon slices through northern New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau. The canyon, which is in some places 800 feet deep, forms at the base of the Jemez Mountains and ends at the Rio Grande. Nearly the entire canyon—approximately seven miles—is part of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Jim Goforth, a physicist, has been coming to work in a remote part of the canyon for more than 40 years. Although he is actively involved in technical explosives work, much of his current focus is on transmitting his knowledge and enthusiasm to the younger generation of scientists and engineers who also work in the canyon.
On a cool June morning, Goforth and a handful of his colleagues in the Explosive Applications and Special Projects (M-6) group gather in a cluttered conference room. They rattle off numbers, brainstorm ideas, and laugh frequently. Pieces and parts of previous experiments lie scattered around the room, along with models, diagrams, old photos, and mementos from the past. Plastering the corkboards on the walls are photos from Russian scientists’ visits to Ancho Canyon in the 1990s, images of fireballs that resulted from various experiments, and even a picture Goforth took of a mountain lion one morning outside his office door. A model of the group’s most recent project occupies the conference table, along with coffee and doughnuts.
Goforth stands at the head of the table. A quiet man of small stature, he has a commanding presence—even without his signature cowboy hat. At age 74, Goforth isn’t ready for retirement.
“We call him Grandpa Jim,” says Jake Gunderson, an engineer. “He’s kind of like the group grandpa.”
“Jim is the single most important person in the group,” echoes Conrad Farnsworth, also an engineer. “Although everyone is critical, and we would be crippled for some time if any one of us left, Jim’s experience and expertise is essential for the group to function.”
Since 1953, Ancho Canyon’s steep walls and remote location have allowed Los Alamos scientists to safely isolate explosives tests from the public. The group based here conducts experiments to study the behavior of nonnuclear weapons and explosives. The experiments take place outdoors, with scientists monitoring results from a nearby bunker.
Physicist Tom Gianakon works closely with the M-6 group and explains that many of the experiments focus on pulsed power, the science and technology of accumulating electrical energy over a relatively long period and releasing it extremely rapidly to create a highly concentrated burst of power. This power can take different forms, such as magnetic fields or electrical currents. “Every step down the line we are trying to get a shorter and more powerful pulse,” he says.
Pulsed-power experiments allow researchers to better understand how materials behave in extreme conditions, such as those that weapons components must withstand. The experiments help identify and decrease uncertainties in nuclear weapons performance without actually detonating any nuclear weapons. The Ancho Canyon work is crucial to the Lab’s national security mission.
“Here’s how I explain my work to people,” Goforth says. “On a good day, I do high-energy density physics experiments using explosive pulsed-power systems, and on a bad day, I just blow things up.”
Researchers work on several experiments simultaneously; currently, 14 different types of experiments are underway. Gunderson says that from initial design concept to execution, an experiment can take up to two years. “These are some of the most complicated experiments that the Laboratory does,” he says.
The team uses carefully assembled and installed diagnostic techniques to measure the output, the material properties, and the success of the experiment. The researchers capture information using high-speed cameras and advanced diagnostic probes. “It can take quite a while to analyze the data,” Goforth says.
Although the scientists predict the outcomes of the experiments, they often get surprising results. “My job is to design experiments,” Gianakon explains. “I use all the advanced computer modeling codes that we have at the Lab to design experiments and then see if we get the answers we expected or if we have surprises. You can learn a lot from the surprises.”
For Goforth and the team, every experiment is an opportunity to learn. “You push the button and the ground shakes. You look at the data, pick up the pieces, and go on,” he says.
Building a legacy
Born in the small, rural town of Tularosa, New Mexico, Goforth grew up in the shadow of White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from New Mexico State University before joining the Air Force. At the Air Force Research Laboratory, Goforth began working on explosive pulsed-power, which involved frequent collaboration with Los Alamos scientists. “I watched my first experiment in Ancho Canyon as a lieutenant in the Air Force in 1973,” he remembers.
Dennis “Denny” Erickson, a retired Los Alamos physicist, worked in Ancho Canyon at that time. “We were impressed with Jim and knew he was coming to the end of his Air Force term, so we encouraged him to apply at the Laboratory,” Erickson says. Because there wasn’t a spot in the Shock-Wave Physics group (what is now M-6), Goforth came to Los Alamos in 1976 as the head of the detonator exploratory development unit. In 1981, he moved to Shock-Wave Physics and has been there ever since.
At Los Alamos, Goforth joined a team of highly esteemed physicists from all over the country. Clarence “Max” Fowler, who led the Shock-Wave Physics group, had become well-known throughout the scientific community for his pioneering research and application of explosive-driven magnetic-flux compression. In fact, a yellowed copy of a letter from Fowler to Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov hangs on a wall near Goforth’s office. The letter, written in the mid-1950s, inquired about Soviet research and paved the way for Fowler and his Los Alamos colleagues to begin a close technical working relationship with their Soviet counterparts.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Goforth played a key role in a collaboration between the Russians and the United States. The lab-to-lab effort included cooperative work on pulsed power and extreme magnetic fields. “Jim was a very active principal in those exchanges,” says Erickson, adding that Goforth made several visits to Russia and hosted Russian scientists visiting New Mexico.
By 1996, the media had caught wind of the Lab’s international collaborations. “We had six countries here in 1996 for high magnetic field research and the CNN news crew in the bunker when our team fired the explosives,” he remembers. “Pretty good for a Tularosa boy,” he adds with a laugh.
Erickson agrees. “Jim was this small-town, southeastern New Mexico kid, looking at all these high-powered people and wondering, ‘Where do I fit in?’ Well, he found his way. He made his small town and his family proud.”
Janina Gielata, an explosives technician, says everyone in the group relies on Goforth’s guidance. “We all have respect for Jim,” she says. “He takes time, he does the legwork, he crunches the numbers, and he comes up with the solutions. When you second guess yourself, you go to Jim and say, ‘Hey, Jim, am I doing this right?’”
What will happen when Goforth retires? Engineer William Shofner jokes about “an elaborate plan to copy Jim’s brain and upload it to the cloud,” while Gunderson quips, “I was just going to go with shackles and a chain.”
Jokes aside, knowledge transfer is a priority for M-6 leadership. Gunderson credits the M-6 group leader, Peter Dickson, and deputy group leader, Amanda Smith, with carefully choosing employees who are committed to teaching and learning. “That’s one thing we have been focused on: bringing young people into the group and really getting that knowledge transfer going,” he says, adding that “this older generation has knowledge, and they didn’t just learn it in a book somewhere. They went and did it, and they’re the ones that wrote the damn book.”
Of course, with all that experience, comes lots of stories. “Some days we’ve got to get through ‘Storytime with Jim’ before we can get some work done,” Gunderson says, chuckling. “You’re going to spend an hour listening to stories, but the stories are instructive and great to have.”
Farnsworth describes Goforth as “having pulsed power as his lifeblood. We’ll get emails at all hours of the day just because he was daydreaming or thinking of something and he stumbled on a critical issue that all of us have somehow missed.”
Goforth seems to derive energy both from enthusiastic new team members and from the promising future of pulsed power. “He’s got all of us youngsters off doing work and he’s doing what he loves,” Gunderson says. “His life’s work is coming to fruition with pulsed-power research becoming a priority. I honestly don’t see him quitting now.”
Goforth notes that recent technological developments are helping move the group closer to its goal of achieving more current in less time. “Our tools are so much better than they were when the Lab first started this research—the diagnostics we can build, the computer design codes we have, and we have this wonderful new crew,” he says. “This is fun stuff, good people, and a mission that I think is important for our country.”
Not to mention the fact that he still has lots of stories. “I can tell stories all day,” he tells the group, and then adds, “This is the last story, I promise.” As laughter breaks out in the crowded conference room at the bottom of Ancho Canyon, Goforth leans in toward the group’s newest grad student. “Just be careful about asking questions ’cause I can do this forever,” he says. ★