Los Alamos is always blowing stuff up. The Lab burst into the public consciousness 70 years ago with the biggest explosion known to humanity—the world’s first atomic bomb. Since then, Los Alamos has continued to lead the nation in explosives science and engineering. Now, some of the researchers working there went to answer questions on Reddit. Here are some of the most interesting ones:

What’s the biggest boom you’ve ever seen/created?

The largest “shot” that I’ve seen was on a tour of an open pit copper mine, when I was an undergraduate student taking explosives engineering. It was 60,000 lb of an ammonium nitrate based explosive. It certainly was earth-shattering, but not the loudest that I’ve heard, as it was timed to not fire all at once and it was deep underground. Being inside a bunker very close to an open-air, yet smaller shot is more impressive.

Is there a “holy grail” of explosives?

The explosives community and National Laboratories have always sought safer explosives that are higher “performing.” By that, we refer to explosives that have high detonation velocities, detonation pressures, and temporal energy release matched to the application (weapons, mining, etc.). Novel concepts to provide higher performance is an active area of research.

My question is, do you have any moral or ethical qualms about the nature of your work? I imagine that most of the end goal for explosives research is for military applications: portable explosives, bombs, other ordnance. Does any of that ever give you any pause?

Actually, much of our explosives research is based on explosives detection and defeat, or finding ways to make explosives safer to handle. These are the projects that I am most proud of working on.

Many people associate explosives with weapons. While a lot of the work at LANL is weapons related, what are your favorite examples of explosives being used for non-weapons related applications? i.e. pyrotechnics, propellants, tools for scientific understanding.

The vast majority of explosives are used by the mining industry, millions of pounds per year. Other interesting examples included the use of explosives to stimulate oil wells to be more productive, the use of explosives for welding, bolt cutting, pilot ejections mechanisms, etc.

Hi, single dad here – How can I get my daughter (13) more interested in science / chemistry / physics? What was it that interested you (ladies) to get involved with science(s)?

Expose her to science through lab or industry tours, university programs or other middle/high school programs, and great role models. As she gets older, encourage her to get involved in class or individual science research projects. It is usually the small interactions or experiences that make a difference. I personally loved the problem solving aspects of science, and learning something new by research that could benefit our world (such as solar/energy research, new materials research, etc.).

What is your favourite explosive?

Nitromethane of course.

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