Last week, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) hosted a special event to honor the 90th birthday of Director Emeritus Michael May.
The fifth director of LLNL, May worked at the Laboratory for more than 35 years, with brief periods spent away on other efforts. He held a variety of research and development positions at Livermore, including director from 1965 to 1971 and associate director at large from 1972 to 1988. He also is professor emeritus (research) in the Stanford University School of Engineering, a senior fellow with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and the former co-director of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.
The celebratory event, attended by a number of former Laboratory directors, kicked off with an introduction by CGSR Director Brad Roberts. Roberts shared his impression of meeting May for the first time in the early 1990s, when the director emeritus spoke at a review committee and shared his thoughts on the implications of current events.
“He saw (the world) clearly, he saw the need to speak compellingly about it and he put ideas into play that we continue to debate today,” Roberts said. “That’s the kind of mark that Mike May has made.”
After the introduction, Roberts turned the stage over to Ron Lehman, Laboratory counselor and former head of CGSR. Lehman opened the conversation with May by asking him how he came to be at the Lab.
May explained that 1952 was a big year for him – he received his Ph.D., he was married and he and his wife were expecting a baby. One of his Ph.D. committee members, Herb York, suggested that he join a new endeavor.
“Why don’t you come to Livermore? We’re opening up a new lab. I can’t tell you what we’re going to be working on, but there will be some very good physicists there,” May recalled York saying.
May accepted, and on Sept. 8, 1952 he showed up for his first day of work.
“The first guy I met said ‘I suppose you know we’re working on nuclear weapons?’ ” he said. “My jaw dropped.”
Describing those early days, May said that the Lab was quite small and informal with considerable research freedom. “It was a startup – that kind of spirit,” he said.
Lehman then turned the conversation to the next phase of May’s career, asking him to discuss how he became director.
“On Sept. 19, 1965, the phone rang. Johnny [Foster] asked me, ‘Mike, if you were asked to become director of the Laboratory, would you accept it?’ ” May recalled. “It was out of the blue. I hesitated for two seconds, maybe five, and said yes. It changed my life.”
“As for why Johnny did that, he’s sitting right there. Why don’t you ask him?” May added, to laughter from the audience.
Johnny Foster, director of the Laboratory from 1961-1965, then answered the question.
“It seemed to me it was a very straightforward thing,” Foster said. “I came to the conclusion that he would be the best replacement and would make the kind of changes that would be necessary.”
Lehman and May then discussed a number of other topics, including the culture of the ‘60s and '70s and the impact that had on his term as director; the value of strategic planning efforts; the creation of CGSR; and the future of arms control and the deterrence.
The conversation, attended by current and former laboratory employees, touched on topics of continuing interest to May, ranging from his experiences at LLNL to nuclear weapons development and policies of the United States and other countries. May also answered questions on topics ranging from proliferation and the recent Iran agreement to his recollection of other physicists from the early days of the Lab.
The event was taped and will be posted on the CGSR website in the future.