Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) is celebrating National Physics Day (April 24) by highlighting just a few of the thousands of physicists that work at the Lab. Physics is a scientific practice that seeks to understand the way the universe behaves by examining properties of matter and energy.
Representing a cross-section of the broad scope of focus areas and disciplines, physics employees discussed their backgrounds, what brought them to the Lab, what they do, why they enjoy their work and what advice they might have for young people thinking of pursuing a career in engineering. Here are their stories:
Physical and Life Science Directorate
Kristi Beck arrived at Lawrence Livermore after a dual career search. At LLNL, she found that both she and her husband, also a physicist, could have fulfilling careers. The duo got hired into two different positions.
Growing up in New Jersey, Beck was inspired by her parents, both engineers. She started conducting chemistry experiments with her father when she was in middle school. What she discovered was that she was more interested in the precision of how the experiment was set up than the ultimate results.
In high school, Beck was on the robotics team. She and her dad built a circuit to figure out how far the robot had traveled by counting how many times a little piece of tape would go by a sensor on a wheel.
“When I was building this, though, the question that I kept on having was: how do the little logic circuits I was building work?” she said. “We ended up talking about how transistors work. And my dad said, if I needed to know more, I needed to study physics. So, I went to university and started studying physics and got into a lab and started doing experiments with atoms and lasers. And I never looked back. That’s really what drew me into physics. And it’s the research environment that’s kept me here.”
At LLNL, Beck works in quantum computing and quantum sensing. One of the challenges that motivates her is anticipating the next generation of high performance computing. For the supercomputers at the Lab to keep solving new problems, they need to get bigger. However, if they just get bigger without any changes, these future computers will use too much energy. “We must start looking at different ways to solving and simulating big systems, systems that the Lab cares about for a lot of the science work that we do. One of the potential technologies is quantum computing, which uses quant properties of atoms.”
Beck said networking at the Lab that leads to new projects with multidisciplinary teams is part of what drives her career. “I've really loved the collaboration that is present in a lot of the work that I do in quantum information. … Through the magic of networking at the Lab, I'm on a project with people who are experts in different fields and I'm the expert in the quantum arena, and we are bringing it together to make a new system.”
Quantum Coherent Device Physics Group
Physical and Life Sciences Directorate
As a child of immigrant parents, Luis Martinez never had any role models in science, but was always curious. And he never dreamed he could become a physicist, but you could say a light went on in his head when he was in his early 20s.
“I always wanted to understand nature for some reason,” he said. “It's just been within me to understand things.”
However, it wasn’t until community college that Martinez, who originally was an economics major, took his first physics course after a friend prodded him to take the course to quench his thirst for understanding how nature works — specifically how light works.
“And my mind was blown away,” he said. “So many questions were answered, but so many more were posed. And I was just kind of hooked on that. And from that, first course, I wanted to learn more and more, and I felt like that was the way to really understand.”
At LLNL, Martinez works in quantum computing. He’s working on superconducting quantum technology which enables quantum computers and quantum sensing — devices which promise to one day process even more data than today’s computers, and sensitive enough to sense a single quanta of light. One major standing challenge is that superconducting quantum systems operate at cryogenic temperatures colder than outer space and need to be isolated from the environment. This requires special components that can regulate the direction electricity travels: “ideally, we want a ‘one-way street’ for electricity,” he said. His team is developing on-chip radiofrequency devices that can regulate how the electricity travels and are about 10 times smaller than today’s existing technology.
“And the remarkable thing about this technology is that it's micrometers in size,” he said. “Being able to put this technology on a chip will benefit the scaling up process.”
But what really influenced Martinez to go into physics was his fascination with light. He wanted to use light to create motion. For his Ph.D. thesis, he coupled electromagnetic light to a mechanical oscillator and was able to use the light to exert a force on a drumhead several centimeters in size. He, in fact, coupled light to mechanical motion. Today at LLNL, he continues to work with light, but instead of coupling light to mechanical oscillators, he couples light to electrical oscillators, which can store microwave light for several hundreds of microseconds.
“You can go all the way from somewhere on theory, you can write it all down, you can write the equations, you can model the motion and then you do the experiment, set it up, put the lasers put the cavities there and it happens,” he said. “Going from all the way from paper to seeing them with your own eyes. I think that is something that's amazing. The unique thing about physics is that it explains nature at a fundamental level where you can use that understanding to then develop new technology.”
Advanced Photon Technologies
NIF & Photon Science
As a high school student, Issa Tamer knew he liked science, but wasn’t sure what discipline to pursue. That all changed when, at his part-time job setting up computers, he happened to see the Wikipedia page for the National Ignition Facility on a customer’s monitor.
He began reading up on NIF and was completely blown away. A general interest in science was replaced with a determination to someday work on powerful lasers at LLNL.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in optical sciences and engineering at the University of Arizona and then headed to Germany, where he earned his Ph.D. in laser physics from Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany. Fulfilling the dream inspired by that Wikipedia page, Tamer joined LLNL as a postdoc and became a staff scientist in 2022.
In the Advanced Photon Technologies program, he helps design and build leading-edge high-power lasers that operate efficiently at high shot rates and deliver short bursts of light with peak power on the order of one petawatt. In a single, ultrashort instant, one petawatt is the power equivalent of the sunlight reaching California and Nevada combined. He is motivated by the “exciting applications of these laser systems, like accelerating charged particles in a plasma to nearly the speed of light, or one day potentially driving inertial fusion energy systems.”
He encourages students to seek hands-on laboratory experiences as early as possible. “To me, the most fun part of studying physics is working in a lab. You come across so many challenging and exciting problems that your textbooks can never prepare you for.”
stark8 [at] llnl.gov