A World-class Flashlight

The recent dedication of the new Synchrotron, the just-inaugurated NSLS-II [National Synchrotron Light Source II, brightest light source in the world, occurred at Brookhaven National Labs (BNL), some 70 miles northeast of Manhattan.

The NSLS-II is a $912-million DOE Office of Science User Facility that produces extremely bright beams of X-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared light used to examine a wide range of materials, including superconductors and catalysts, geological samples, and biological proteins to accelerate advances in energy, environmental science, and medicine. Applications for the end-user abound, though the principle at Brookhaven resounds more to pure science than to the commodity end. 

A great focus on nanotechnology -- a pet interest of ours -- nanoparticles and the unlimited potential for their uses in medication, pharmaceuticals, cosmeceuticals, makeup, food science, agriculture, and technology remains still to be developed. Throughout the facility, a buoyant air of delight and controlled pride pervaded all buildings visited and all spokespeople demonstrating their robotic delivery arms or their specially angled mirrors inside cunning, exactitudinous metal housings, tubes and cylinders. Leaden doors slid closed to prevent escaping radiation, though we were assured that potential radiation exposure was less than 1% of all the background radiation one normally receives (living, for example, in Seattle, or NYC, both of which have quite sizable levels of background radiation, surprisingly enough). NB: We noticed no mutant lab workers or three-headed animal companions. 

The handsome, ebullient (all of our small group was female) demonstrators showed admirable familiarity with their shiny creations, some of which had consumed millions of dollars and more than 18 months of labor, permissions, licenses, fees, combinatorial efforts of many different vendors and other labs, and precise measurements and re-measurements in order to ensure precision to the finest degree of certitude. As we had humorously noted on our first pass-through a decade earlier, for all the highest of high tech visible, one notes, still, the advent of humble aluminum foil. Alcoa serves to wrap wiring and conduct or prevent conduction on any number of spectacularly costly housings for the control of and directioneering of the electron- or proton beams,

We enjoyed a bag lunch accompanied by a slide show of various aspects of the acronym-heavy features of the day, by expert heavies from the lab:

We were in a small cadre of invited reporters, five in all, led by the longtime PR correspondent, Karen McNulty, who has been with the BNL for the past 16 years, and who gave as good a précis of the nature of the NSLS II as anyone could, while we drove up the Thruway. We were delighted to be invited once again to the much-heralded event at BNL. The frigid temperatures and the early hour of departure probably kept a number of other writers from joining us. Medford, the town nearest to Brookhaven, registered five degrees colder than NYC, in the single digits when we left. There was, however, a clutch of male photogs busily snapping photographs as the VIPs stood and smiled in the shifting permutations demanded by the sweating photo professionals. Among the august guests who attended, in a packed atrium space seating upwards of 500, with men and women lining the sides of the space, as well as the second “floor” balcony areas to the side and behind us -- were Senator Charles Schumer and Congressman Lee Zeldin, the U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, the president of Stony Brook University, and sundry other notables. The large, semi-circular podium accommodated a round of VIPs, who each spent perhaps 5 to 8 minutes explaining their pleasure at officiating at this event.

After vanning to BNL for the event, we were invited to speak with an array of attractive, mostly foreign scientists, engineers, and techno geeks for an exciting look-see at this newest light, 10,000 times brighter than any other artificial light. Such new brightness will facilitate peering into the spectroscopic molecules or components of specialized elements, space dust, new materials and subject matter. Men with slight and charming accents of northern Italy, Great Britain or somewhere, France, were delighted to demonstrate the exterior housings of complicated set-ups where extremely focused light beams are “wiggled” or shot, dead straight, along a great distance, in a curving building that, when we came here to see the inauguration of LSNS I, was only a bare cement tract, 10 years ago.

We were able to have one-on-one Q-and-A after the presentations. Secretary Moniz was thoughtful, straightforward and, surprisingly, kind. And knowledgeable, nice to note. The senators and congress-people who had been importuned for millions apparently took his calls, he joked a few times. Nice to note that here was money well-allocated for a future-directed facility that would produce many benefits from pure science to consumer improvements, comestibles and medicines down the line.

The significance of the new brilliance is not as easy to explain or understand, as most obvious cultural achievements are. But that does not detract from the glowing importance of this new light.

Along the impressively massive hangar-like expanse of this Synchrotron's curvilinear expansion were occasional penned-in areas where resided durable-wheeled tricycles outfitted with capacious back baskets, and as we walked from site to site, we encountered scientists and workers driving by on one of these industrial adult tricycles. Reminding us of our visit to a Shanghai university campus that, modeled on some huge American campus original, was so vast that students had to bicycle to get anywhere between or after classes.

The various buildings of the BNL serve different purposes. The one we were in for this event, after an initial stop at a cafeteria not far away, was painted a subdued but pleasant ochre-y yellow, with networks of red piping and tubing snaking across the 25’- or 30’-high vaulted ceilings. Lots of security men in navy, keeping an eye on things.

Coming into the compound, we had to pass through a gate and show serious ID, and were issued stickers for further on-site identification. We were instructed to wear the stickers on “inside clothing” so that when we removed our outerwear, the stickers would still be visible. Uniformed police/Security kept a weather eye on whoever sallied into the area.

What was a nice change was -- after so much intensive political events and conferences, on the one hand, and nonessential but ballyhooed leisure-time entertainment -- here was a world-class event that transcended the run-of-the-mill, and was, for what seemed a nice respite: an apolitical celebration of science and amiable cooperation by nations, research professionals and inventors.

What is still surprising, even after a decade, is that this entire remarkable enterprise, which -- finally? -- again places the U.S. in the forefront of this sort of research and development in the world, is that all the massive reams of data generated by research using this light source, the off-shooting of scattered energy from the powerfully accelerated beams (a la CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, somewhat different in focus from BNL) and the consequent divulging of basic secrets of the building blocks of life – yes -- is freely available and published for all people and nations to use. BNL, like CERN, probes the fundamental structures of the universe.

Secretary Moniz told us there was no need to charge for the research or facilities because "It has already been paid for, by you, by the taxpayer." We're not convinced the business model for this facility is all that sound. But the facility has always been available free of charge. Researchers just  pay their way to and from their countries and bring their own research materials.

Some 1,600 researchers, scientists, engineers, physicists, and mathematicians come to the BNL for fundamental research, bringing with them the ‘material’ they seek to work on or with, working with people from almost every country on the map. We spoke with many charming engineers with accents hailing from Europe, Asia, and the Americas.The scientists told us they can handle 60 separate beamlines upon which to work at one time. Meaning researchers can get their studies moving much more quickly than they could ever have hoped to back in their host labs or host countries. We spoke with many charming engineers with accents hailing from Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

During the seven hours, we were brought up short only once. One of the group began to mock “climate-change” deniers as dunderheadedly out of it. Although we were shocked by the nonscientific attitude and viewpoint, we wisely chose not to strike that particular match.

While the event was momentous, a certified millennial event and glorious achievement of American science, know-how, cooperation and international comity, the newspaper of record -- the New York Times, is it? -- forgot to send a reporter. Unworthy, we surmise, of their hydra-brained horizon of notice.