Metropolis himself played no small role in that, exemplified by the Lab’s supercomputing center, a postdoctoral fellowship, and the world-famous algorithm that carries his name. And just recently, 22 years after his death, the Lab’s National Security Research Center received a significant donation of materials to add to its collections.
“Much like the Lab’s computing center that bears his name, it is a fitting tribute to his significance to the Lab,” said Danny Alcazar, an NSRC archivist who accessioned the recently donated materials. “Housed and actively being used in the NSRC, it is a resource to researchers seeking answers about the Lab’s evolving mission.”
Metropolis’s vast collection of papers, artifacts, and personal relics acquired over his long career make up today’s Metropolis Collections.
The Road to Los Alamos
In the 1940s, its mission-driven need for advanced numerical simulations related to weapons development drove Los Alamos to become a leader in computing. Beginning with human computers and IBM punched-card accounting machines, the Lab transitioned to new electronic computers through the 1950s, with Los Alamos pioneering many of the computer-simulation technologies and methods still used today. Metropolis, known for his stylish bolo ties and wit, was an advocate and guiding force for that pioneering effort.
Born in Chicago in 1915 to a Greek-American family, Metropolis earned his doctorate in physics in 1941 from the University of Chicago. There, he worked alongside would-be Los Alamos physicists Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller and was recruited by J. Robert Oppenheimer to join the secret wartime effort to create the world’s first atomic bombs.
After helping to assemble and operate the IBM punched-card machines needed for the wartime implosion weapon’s design, Metropolis aided in writing the first large program for the ENIAC, the first electronic, general-purpose computer.
“Naturally, we were mesmerized by the prospects”
“Naturally, we were mesmerized by the prospects,” Metropolis recalled about the advancing field of electronic computing, which became his career-long obsession. In the following years, Metropolis played a vital role in developing the groundbreaking Monte Carlo method of simulation, and led the team that constructed the Lab’s first electronic computer, the MANIAC, followed by the MANIAC II.
“Nick seamlessly combined his physics insights with mathematical elegance to make his great contributions,” a colleague later said.
Earning a multitude of awards and founding a computational-physics scholarship in his name, Metropolis became a senior Lab fellow in 1981, and the first recipient of the emeritus title at Los Alamos in 1987.
During retirement, Metropolis enthralled staff with stories, such as winning $10 from Lab mathematician John von Neumann in a poker game and claiming he dated artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who was nearly 30 years older.
Metropolis Collections at a Glance
Metropolis’s legacy includes 211 boxes of documents, photos, artifacts, audio tapes, and videos in the NSRC. The collections include his high school diploma and notes from his college physics courses, though the majority of the materials focus on Metropolis’s life and work from World War II through the early 1990s. Some highlights from the collections include:
- Correspondence with “Johnnie” von Neumann over the MANIAC and New Mexican food.
- The groundbreaking development of the Monte Carlo method.
- Invaluable audio tapes of talks given by computing pioneers.
- Metropolis’s Rolodex, containing hundreds of phone numbers and personal details, including those of physicists Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman.
“These rich materials provide insights into the development of computing technologies and methods that supported the Lab’s mission through the Cold War, and highlight the people whose choices and hard work made those developments happen,” said NSRC Director Riz Ali. “Plus, they’re fascinating snapshots of the Lab’s illustrious history.”
The Lab’s New Addition
Jim Louck, the physicist and longtime friend who managed the now-closed Metropolis Foundation that promoted the study of mathematics and computational science, collected papers and personal effects from Metropolis’s final years. Louck gave them to Helen Boorman, a distant relative of Metropolis and current LANL employee. Boorman realized their historical value and donated them to the NSRC.
Now accessioned into the NSRC collections, the donation includes his last LANL badge, video lectures, an unpublished memoir, and transcribed talks, including from his memorial service.
Louck also collected internal Lab correspondence detailing the decision in 2002 to name Los Alamos’s cutting-edge supercomputing facility the Nicholas C. Metropolis Center for Modeling and Simulation, which today contains the Lab’s most powerful computer systems — a fitting tribute to name the key center for mission-critical stockpile stewardship simulations after someone so directly involved with inventing and preserving the Lab’s computing and simulation legacy. 🔎