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Looking for nuclear explosions wins Bow native major physics award

Last modified: 10/4/2015 1:32:16 AM
In a way, Eric Dors recently received one of the highest awards for a government physicist because his work has found nothing.

But in this case, nothing means everything, because the project for which Dors recently received the E.O. Lawrence Award seeks signs of nuclear explosions.

The device, called SABRS, circles the Earth searching for bursts of neutrons and gamma rays as part of nuclear non-proliferation treaties. And happily, after years of looking, it hasn’t found a single one.

“Any mission that is basically deterrence-based is going to have that,” said Dors concerning the lack of results. “But if we didn’t hold nations accountable through monitoring systems, maybe they would cheat.”

For almost 20 years, Dors has been a staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, best-known as a site of the first atomic bomb explosion. These days it’s home to some 10,000 people involved in research and development related to national security.

In May, Dors was one of two Los Alamos recipients of the Lawrence award, named after one of the greatest American nuclear physicists and a founder of the national laboratory system. The award honors “mid-career scientists” who have made for contributions in research and development that support the Energy Department’s science, energy and national security missions. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz presented Dors with the award.

Dors’s parents Thomas, an electrical engineer, and Claire, an elementary school music teacher, moved to Bow when he was little. He rose through that town’s public schools and attended Bishop Brady High School, where he graduated in 1988, and UNH, where he received a doctorate in physics. His brother, Ivan, did the same thing.

Dors has “strong memories of going to my dad’s workplace, seeing some of the test equipment they worked on” as a child, but nonetheless getting a physics degree involved a little bit of rebellion.

“It didn’t seem as practical to him as engineering,” Dors recalled.

He may have had a point: Dors’ doctorate concerned how the magnetosphere, the area of Earth full of charged particles from the sun, drives currents into the upper ionosphere and creates the aurora.

Dors ended up at Los Alamos thanks to UNH’s various satellite projects under professors Roy Torbert, who’s still there, and Craig Kletzing, whom Dors followed to the University of Iowa for a time.

He became part of NASA projects, such as launching sounding rockets from Wallops Island off Virginia’s coast, and that led to connections who pointed him to Los Alamaos once he received his doctorate and started looking for work.

Eventually, he ended up with the treaty-monitoring systems, which have been overseen by Los Alamos since the early 1960s. An old system was being updated and he got involved.

“We started from scratch, redesigned a much smaller, lower-power, reduced-cost system to replace an aging system,” he said.

The redesign, the Space and Atmospheric Burst Reporting System, was so extreme that they had to fly a test; earthbound tests weren’t enough.

All in all, he said, “I probably worked on it for about 10 years,” ending up as project director, the work for which he was honored.

Dors won’t talk about budgets, but says about 100 people were on the team, about 60 of them full-time.

“This involved a lot of work by a lot of dedicated people. Being the project leader you get the benefit of any recognition, but I had a wonderful team,” he said.

The advantage of a project like that at a place like Los Alamos, he said, is that it mixes high science – SABRS, which is “about twice the size of a desktop PC” and rides on another satellite, also gathers data important to space physics – along with practical projects.

“I could be working on astrophysics and space physics, understanding how the universe works, as well as contributing to the national security,” he said.

Dors has moved on to a new job, “trying to reach across a broad base of basic science, identify how those could be used for national-security missions.” It means, he admits, “I don’t do hands-on experiments any more, but on the flip side I’ve always found new and exciting work that I can keep moving to.”

Dors and his wife Kristin (Martin), a Nashua native who works for a firm supporting EPA surface water quality studies, live in Los Alamos with their children Kevin, 13, and Brian, 10. They plan to stay, partly because the weather is nice. At 7,400 feet, Los Alamos avoids the desert heat and has snow and seasons.

“The saying here is if you don’t like the weather, pick a different altitude,” he joked.

And there’s one other advantage.

“There aren’t any mosquitoes,” he said. “I miss some things about New Hampshire 
. . . but I don’t miss mosquitoes.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@
cmonitor.com, or on Twitter 


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