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The Billion-Dollar Riddle

Bill Goldstein ’77 aims to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons

In today's world, Bill Goldstein ’77 is a rare breed—a person who worked 28 years for the same organization and rose to the top. On March 31, the longtime physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) became the 12th director of the laboratory, in charge of a $1.5 billion annual budget and 6,300 employees.

Roughly two-thirds of that budget goes toward “stockpile stewardship”—ensuring that the United States’ nuclear arsenal remains safe and functional. But the last nuclear test on U.S. soil took place in 1992. This poses a billion-dollar riddle: How can you tell that a weapon still works—and a weapon of extreme complexity at that—if you never fire it?

Instead of blowing up the weapons, engineers now take them apart. “We do science experiments at lower scales, assessing the physical properties of the materials,” Goldstein says. For example, they study how the materials behave at extremely high temperatures and pressures. The results are used as input to simulate nuclear explosions, which take place inside some of the world’s fastest computers. Goldstein hopes that is where the explosions will stay. “The work we do is a central ingredient in making sure we won’t have to resume [testing] in the future, which would impact our interest in limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

In recent decades, LLNL’s research portfolio has grown far beyond its Cold War roots. Goldstein says that one of the greatest pleasures of his job has been learning about the variety of other projects at the laboratory. For example, the lab’s Applied Genomics Group developed the Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA), a screening device that can test samples for 3,000 different viruses and 2,000 different bacteria overnight. Though developed for biosecurity purposes, the technology has many other possible uses: identifying new pandemics, finding viruses associated with cancer, and screening vaccines for contamination by viruses other than the target virus. This year, LLMDA even found fragments of the plague bacillus in a 14th-century human tooth, research that could help biologists understand why the Black Death was so deadly.

Goldstein says that Swarthmore’s biggest impact on him came through the friendships he made. “The one I remember most vividly and most fondly was my freshman roommate, Gordon Rich [’78],” he says. “He was brilliant, passionate, driven, and a fiercely loyal friend.” Rich died in 2000, after a short but very successful career in finance. As a student who followed in Rich’s considerable wake, this writer can attest to Goldstein’s description of him: an irreverent, charismatic personality who made everyone around him dream bigger and aim higher.

After graduation, Goldstein studied physics at Columbia University and completed a three-year postdoctoral appointment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator. His next job was at Lawrence Livermore, and that’s where he stayed.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a number of excellent mentors,” he says. “The lab’s mission, which is to do state-of-the-art science and bring it to bear on national security challenges, wasn’t foremost in my mind when I came to work here, but it has kept me here. The ability to see your work have real-world impact is distinctive.”

While Swarthmore didn’t teach him how to build a nuclear weapon, it did give him the confidence to succeed both as a scientist and a manager, Goldstein says. “If you succeeded there, with the rigor and expectations placed on you, then you knew you could pretty much succeed anywhere else. It has helped me not necessarily meet the challenges to come but feel that I could meet them.”