Physicists miss out on critical points as magazines vanish

Conspiracy theories circulate about issues “lost” on their way to Los Alamos.


Paper chase: copies of a contentious article were never delivered to Los Alamos staff. Credit: AIP

Some sensitive material has once again disappeared from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico — and the corridors are abuzz with theories about what happened to it.

Gone missing this time are a couple of hundred copies of the December 2004 issue of Physics Today, which contained an article critical of Peter Nanos, the laboratory's director. After many physicists at the laboratory reported that they had not received the issue, conspiracy theories began to circulate about the fate of the lost magazines.

Laboratory officials categorically deny that they are trying to keep the article from the staff. “The notion that there was some sort of an effort to keep Physics Today out of the hands of subscribers is ludicrous at best,” says Jim Fallin, the laboratory's chief spokesman.

But according to an e-mail survey published in the March issue of the magazine, more than half of the laboratory's 414 subscribers say that they never received their copies of the December issue. By comparison, less than 3% say they didn't get the February 2005 issue.

Credit: AIP

The mystery of the missing magazines is just the latest reported disappearance at the laboratory: in July of last year, for example, two hard drives containing classified data were reported missing (see Nature 430, 387; 2004 10.1038/430387a ). The disks, together with the injury of a summer intern, led Nanos to shut down parts of Los Alamos for nearly six months and to accuse lab scientists of a “cowboy culture” of disregard for safety and security rules at the facility. Many researchers were livid about the long shutdown, especially after a government investigation concluded that the missing disks never actually existed (see Nature 433, 447; 2005 10.1038/433447a ).

The Physics Today article was an opinion piece by Brad Lee Holian, a theoretical physicist at the laboratory. It attacked Nanos's position by citing statistics that showed Los Alamos's safety record to be comparable to that of other national laboratories (Physics Today 57(12), 60–61; 2004). So when the issue in which it was printed failed to arrive, physicists at the lab began to speculate as to the cause of the disappearance.

“The whole thing is a mystery,” says Holian. He adds that he, for one, doesn't buy the conspiracy theories: “I'm still in the camp that somebody goofed up somehow.” But, he points out, the fact that rumours continue to circulate on e-mail and the popular ‘LANL: The Real Story’ blog shows the level of tension between staff and administrators. “After the shutdown, people don't have a lot of confidence in laboratory management anymore,” he says.

Fallin doubts that Los Alamos's staff or its management are to blame for the vanishing magazines. “Mailroom employees pride themselves in their handling of Physics Today,” he notes sternly. A thorough search of the lab's mail facilities has yet to turn up the missing issues, and he says a more likely explanation may be that Physics Today's mailing labels contained errors. The laboratory has contacted the postmaster-general in Albuquerque to help investigate.


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Brumfiel, G. Physicists miss out on critical points as magazines vanish. Nature 434, 4 (2005).

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