Shaking up a visit to the museum - Albuquerque Journal

Shaking up a visit to the museum

The Explosion Detectives exhibit at the Bradbury Science Museum in downtown Los Alamos details how laboratory scientists use physics, geology and supercomputing to detect, identify and locate nuclear explosions worldwide. (Courtesy of Bradbury Science Museum)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Obviously, not a whole lot of good came out of the virus-related shutdowns and health mandates.

But one positive has been the overall refurbishment of the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos and the addition of a new, interactive exhibit with very real-life ramifications.

The museum houses some 60 interactive exhibits tracing the history of the World War II Manhattan Project, and also highlights the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s current and historic research projects related to defense and technology, with a focus on research on national and international economic, environmental, political and social issues. Lab scientists worked hand in hand with museum curators to develop the exhibits that draw nearly 80,000 visitors a year.

The newest exhibit, called “Explosion Detectives,” gives visitors a sense of what it is like to study energy waves through the ground.

Kathy Snelson, a LANL seismologist who studies ground motion, helped create the exhibit.

“In this particular case, I use my background to understand how to generate seismic waves to better understand explosions,” she said.

Snelson holds a doctorate in geological sciences from the University of Texas at El Paso. Her doctoral work focused on experiments to generate explosions to help understand the evolution of the western U.S. and the Rocky Mountains.

She has since worked on learning how energy waves – both man-made and natural – course through the Earth.

And that is the gist of what is behind the “Explosion Detectives” exhibit.

“We’re trying to see what is going on underneath our feet,” Snelson said. “We set up a lot of experimentation so we can understand signals and how they propagate in the Earth or above the Earth.”

Using the latest in seismograph technology to develop models helps Snelson and other scientists understand different types of explosions and to tell the difference between a chemical explosion, a nuclear explosion or a natural event, such as an earthquake.

While the U.S. and most other nuclear-capable countries have abided by a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing since 1992, such rogue countries as North Korea continue to test their nuclear capabilities, making Snelson’s research critical to national security.

The United States has not performed an underground nuclear test in 29 years, but that’s not the case for all nations. Expert seismologists at Los Alamos National Laboratory can remotely distinguish between an earthquake, a chemical explosion and a nuclear explosion. At the Bradbury Science Museum exhibit Explosion Detectives the Seismic Seat, left, simulates these vibration levels for visitors. (Courtesy of Bradbury Science Museum)

“How can we understand what the rest of the world is doing,” Snelson asked. “For the past 10 years out at the (Nevada) test site, we’ve been modeling these events. North Korea continues to test and, as a result, we need to understand what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Seismograph is one of the ways. We thought this would be a really good theme, figuring out what happens, so the exhibit goes through the history of nuclear testing.”

The exhibit also puts visitors in the middle of actual events through the use of technology similar to that used in sensory theaters, said the Bradbury’s Mel Strong, who helped make Snelson’s ideas a reality.

The technology was developed originally for drummers to help them keep time with the bass player in bands, he said. A weight suspended in a cylinder is connected to the bass player’s amp and, when a note is played, it thumps the note on the bottom of the drummer’s stool.

It started being used for many other applications, such as home theaters, where it connects to the couch and the couch rattles, Strong said. It’s also used in IMAX theaters to provide a sensory experience such as feeling the seat vibrate.

“We wanted a way that the visitor can actually feel the differences between these waves,” he said. “We didn’t want them to just see it on a screen, we wanted them to feel it. So, not only does the person feel the earthquake, but also they can actually see the seismograph on the screen, looking at the three different directions it moves.”

The exhibit includes the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Krakatoa volcano explosion of 1883, the 1980 Mount St. Helen’s volcanic eruption and a North Korean nuclear blast, as well as several that visitors need to determine based on what they’ve learned from the exhibit.

“A big emphasis is on trying to explain nuclear non-proliferation, that is the science we’re doing here,” Snelson said. “The world as we know it can be a little scary at times. This is one part of national security that we work on that we can have an impact in being able to understand how nuclear testing is occurring and where. And providing models for our government to act on.”

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