‘Be flexible with the way you approach a problem,’ says Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Katie Mussack, paraphrasing advice from her mentor John Pedicini. ‘Be tied to the outcomes and not to the specific details of the process’.
From supercomputers to artificial lungs, Los Alamos National Laboratory’s mission is to provide science and technology to meet national security challenges. The Faces of Innovation series focuses on seven scientists and engineers who are pioneering new technology and programs at Los Alamos. Their groundbreaking ideas, experiments, and data have big implications for national security. This article originally appeared in National Security Science Magazine.
In 1945, the U.S. Navy had a question: Could its ships survive a nuclear blast? It turned to Los Alamos, which provided an answer after the 1946 Crossroads test series in the Pacific. In 2018, the Navy had another question—a classified one—this time about nuclear weapons. Once again, it turned to Los Alamos for an answer.
“To answer the question, we started brainstorming,” says physicist Katie Mussack, who partnered with colleagues Omar Wooten and Guillermo Terrones on what she calls “thought experiments.”
“We started by talking about the physics at play and how we wanted to change the dynamics of the system in the question,” she explains. The trio discussed and went back and forth on new ideas. Then they independently investigated different parts of the problem before continuing their conversation. Eventually, they began doing computer simulations, with actual experiments to come later.
“Our initial goal was to show the Navy that we could be responsive when asked a question,” Mussack says. “Then we came up with ideas that could actually work.”
Mussack’s mentor, celebrated weapons designer John Pedicini, provided behind-the-scenes guidance and encouragement. “He pushed us, but he did it out of love: love for us, the science, the product, the nation,” Mussack says. “His encouragement gave us the freedom to explore and trust ourselves while also questioning ourselves. We needed to think deeply about what we were doing.”
They also needed to talk about what they were doing—to bounce ideas off colleagues not directly involved in the problem. “The Lab is not just a collaborative environment. It’s a collaborative environment full of experts,” Mussack says. “Everyone’s door is open, and people are excited to talk about their work and thoughts.”
Mussack is quick to point out that her team’s ability to answer a challenging question builds on not only this collaborative environment but also on decades of previous Laboratory research. “I looked back though historical documents and saw ideas that were similar to the ideas we were brainstorming,” she says. “I was able to use some of those ideas and develop them further to finally answer the Navy’s question.”
“Innovation is slow steady progress that builds to one thing that people notice,” she continues, noting that progress is often the result of failure. “You come up with an idea, try it, and if it doesn’t work, try something else.”