South by High-Tech

New Mexico had a challenge coming its way. My 16-year-old nephew was flying in for a visit. First stop: Bandelier National Monument and its ceremonial caves.

”It‘s fine and all that,“ Matthew called out, climbing down a ladder. ”But I’m not really into Native American culture.“

So pueblos were out. Matthew‘s imagination played in a high-tech world. I needed to bypass all that was most ancient in the state, yet still amaze him.

Near those cliff dwellings in Bandelier is the city of Los Alamos. Back in 1943, it was largely the home of teenage boys at the Ranch School. Then Robert Oppenheimer swept in with his team of research scientists. The Manhattan Project was under way, leading to the world’s first nuclear explosion. Project Matthew was now under way as well, revealing New Mexico as a world leader in mind-bending science.

The Los Alamos Historical Museum is housed in one of the Ranch School buildings. Los Alamos celebrates rather than questions all things nuclear: See the atomic explosion birthday cake and bonnet! The museum looks back on a time when naivete was at its most sophisticated, the world‘s keenest minds working in the wilderness to give science more power than nature ever had.

The Bradbury Science Museum in the town brings the story up to date. For young minds of nuclear capacity there are hands-on shows of robotics, laser technology and genetic manipulation. Bring your own skepticism, for the morality of nuclear war is a one-sided debate. Model casings for the bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are on display, each very different. One bomb could surely have sealed the war, but then how could scientists compare the effects of the second?

Skepticism goes back on hold as we head south down the eastern side of the state. The summer desert baked to its regular 105 degrees in July 1947, and aliens landed near Roswell. They were whisked away by military operatives for examination in an aircraft hangar, the whole episode buried under layers of official subterfuge. Credible or not, it is one of the 20th century’s most pervasive conspiracy theories. Does Roswell‘s UFO Museum pass the high-tech teenage test? It scrapes by. For myself, the obsessions of the museum’s volunteers were sweet. Entrance is free into what used to be a cinema, and the space is a shrine to a B-movie version of outer space.

More convincing is a display of rockets in Roswell‘s Museum & Arts Center. Robert Goddard risked blowing up his Massachusetts neighbors, so he brought his efforts to Roswell’s desert. Here he developed the world‘s first successful liquid-fuel rocket. Those early rockets, and the workshop in which they were made, are well-displayed in the museum.

Goddard needed the emptiness of New Mexico for his rockets. Oppenheimer chose the state for its isolation and beauty. Other top scientists like the altitude and the clear, dry air. Due west from Roswell a road cuts through the Sacramento Mountains, an undulant greenness reminiscent of California’s coastal hills. Located on Sacramento Peak, at 9,200 feet, is the National Solar Observatory. Paths lead through pine forests around a range of telescopes, each with its own visitor viewing area. You‘re always close to the sun in New Mexico. This research center adds a little understanding to the heat.

The observatory overlooks White Sands Missile Range. At one end is the peak of any high-tech trip through the state. Show a driver’s license to security, drive into the military complex, and you are free to roam around a missile park. This must be the universe‘s best free exhibit of military hardware. From early missiles to ones still deployed, the freedom to get close to weapons of mass destruction tames them somehow. I forgot their power and admired their beauty of form.

To the west, approaching Arizona, is the most beautiful display of science I know. The Very Large Array is a series of antennas with white dishes, each of them 81 feet in diameter. They run on tracks with a radius of 13 miles. If aliens follow up on their Roswell visit, this is where the world will likely hear of them first. This astronomical observatory scans space to collect radio waves from distant galaxies.

After the first hour of our high-science road tour, Matthew put his PowerBook on the back seat and gazed instead at the landscape. I was touched to see him discover the natural wonders of this land. But I kept my trump card for traveling back through Albuquerque.

”Did you know that Bill Gates and Microsoft started out in Albuquerque?“ I asked him.

Matthew smiled. I had pressed the button that wakens a high-tech teenager’s dreams. He knows New Mexico now. It‘s the place you have to come to before you change the world.


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