The Black Hole of Los Alamos
A Quantum Leap into the Black Hole of Los Alamos

Even without the recent spy scandals, fires, protests, and nuclear bomb data found behind the photocopier, Los Alamos is one of the most interesting places in America. Haunting native ruins and cliff dwellings abut nuclear bomb technical areas; Robert Oppenheimer's house lurks behind shrubbery; and engineers full of secrets stand in line with their arugula at the grocery store. And then there is the Black Hole. Field Researcher Charles Barile filed this report on a visit to this locally famous feature of remarkable Los Alamos, New Mexico.

1116 Its impossible to avoid the pull when you come within sight of the Black Hole of Los Alamos. CLUI photo

THE ADVERTISEMENT IN THE NORTHERN New Mexico Thrifty Nickel Want Ad newspaper features a weekly listing for 'The Black Hole - An Unusual Place.' Owned and operated by Ed Grothus, 76, since 1969, the ad refers to a surplus emporium he has dubbed 'The Eighth Wonder of the World.' 'The Black Hole' is a 25,000 square foot discount priced mecca that offers for sale electronic and mechanical equipment that spans the entire history of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The LANL, located in close proximity to 'The Black Hole,' is responsible for the design, development and safekeeping of the United States nuclear arsenal and is spread over 43 square miles and houses fifteen nuclear reactors including the oldest operating fission unit in the country.

The surplus detritus of the LANL accumulated at 'The Black Hole,' is combination junkyard and museum, overflows both a former Shop'N' Cart grocery store and an Evangelical Lutheran Church and spills onto property that covers five acres. Grothus has collected, purchased and bartered a dramatic array of surplus, production overrun and never used LANL paraphernalia. Among the unique artifacts on display are the 1939 model Philco radio purportedly owned by J. Robert Oppeneimer (blocking the door of the former market's walk-in freezer), several of the first-ever commercially manufactured adding machines that were used by Enrico Fermi and other top physicists for the preliminary calculations in creating the original atomic bomb, drawers full of authentic 40's era brass badges used by lower level 'B' class lab employees for gate clearance, and motion picture cameras designed to record early bomb blasts that exposed one million 'frames' per second. More recent vintage stock includes nearly every model of IBM Selectric typewriter as well as 80's and 90's lab components including then state-of-the-art oscilloscopes and laser assemblies.

Creating and constantly expanding this vast, moldering collection has made Grothus, a devoted 'peacenik,' something of an embarrassment to the local weapons-based community. A 51-year resident of Los Alamos, Grothus spent 20 years as an LANL machinist in the Weapons Group measuring the ultra-precise conventional explosive forces necessary to detonate the early fission devices. Undergoing an "epiphany" in 1969 at the height of the Viet Nam conflict, he has spent the ensuing years as the self-appointed conscience of Los Alamos, railing vociferously against the creation and use of nuclear weapons. Most recently arrested (along with anti-bomb activists Martin Sheen and Dr. Helen Caldicott) in August 1999 for a rally that trespassed onto lab property, Grothus' philosophy is encapusulated in his constant, mantra-like insistence that "one bomb is too many" and his fervent hope for nuclear disarmament. "Truman's biggest mistake was not approving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Grothus expounds, "It was when he changed the name of the War Department to the Department of Defense. Who can argue with approving funding for defense?"

Considering the irony that Grothus makes his living upon the excess of the laboratory whose mission he radically opposes, he explains that "tons" of barely-used computers, testing equipment and medical-related supplies have been donated to ill-equipped and poorly funded university science departments nationwide and to technologically deprived countries such as Costa Rica. "Los Alamos is so damn rich and overfunded that it just seems right to spread this stuff around a bit and take care of the little guys who could never get this kind of high-quality equipment."

Taking stock of the enormous mounds of materiel from the front door of 'The Black Hole,' Grothus pointed out a specially cast, never used lucite block measuring 4' x 8' x 6' earmarked for testing gamma ray radiation shielding and manufactured at the cost of $1 per square inch. Reflecting on it and other enormous piles of lab discards including a late 50's era early computer punch tape keyboard and scores of file cabinets secured with bank vault style combination locks, he shook his head and lamented: "Why couldn't God have made me a sports fan?"

(NOTE: The author's visit to 'The Black Hole' occurred on Thursday, May 4, 2000, the first day of the devesting fire that - informed sources report - very nearly reached barrels of low-level radiation and chemical waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory's Technical Area 54. While Grothus guided visitors across his property early that afternoon, he pointed out the initial flames and smoke of the prescribed burn on an adjacent ridge and contemptously (and presciently) derided the U.S. Forest Service policy of 'controlled fires.' Although nearly 300 homes were lost and the fire destroyed a handful of the Lab's historic buildings from the 1940's where parts of the first atomic bomb were assembled, 'The Black Hole' survived intact and continues its daily sales operations.)

1252 Grothus and period Smith Corona adding machines used by Enrico Fermi for atomic bomb yield calculations. Charles Barile photo