Doors to Discovery

Jefferson Lab holds open house, offers glimpse into science

Two expressions dominated the faces of those who attended the Jefferson Lab open house Saturday.

The first was a quizzical, squinting look of bewilderment, usually worn as some highly trained scientist explained higher principles of physics to the average citizen.

The second was a look of recognition and amazement, when that average citizen was able to grasp the scope of the lab's technology and come to appreciate it in some practical terms.

The Jefferson Lab, best known for its electron accelerator facility, is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and run by a consortium of 52 universities. Usually, the Newport News laboratory is the exclusive domain of scientists and researchers.

On Saturday, the lab opened its doors and technology to the general public, an event it holds every two years.

"We're a taxpayer funded entity," said Debbie Magaldi, a spokeswoman for the lab. "So once every two years we shut everything down and pick a good day to let people come in so they can see how their taxpayer dollars are being spent."

For 78-year-old Will Granger, it was an event he wouldn't have missed. A former electronic engineer and science buff, Granger even brought along his video camera.

"This is in my old line," he said. "This comes as close to 'Star Trek' and 'Buck Rogers' as you're gonna get."

The accelerator and the cavernous experimental halls where scientists study the properties of atoms were the main attractions for those like Granger.

Like a surfer riding a wave, the accelerator speeds up electrons riding on microwaves through tubes, constructed underground in the shape of a racetrack. The electrons move at light speed and only incrementally gain speed. More importantly, they gather mass and energy.

Giant magnets then deflect the electrons into rooms where the electrons slam into a target. Scientists study the effect on the target — either a gas, liquid or solid.

The lab opened up the accelerator and the experimental halls and provided its scientists to explain the work they do.

"If you ask questions you can understand it," said Bob Adams, whose job is launching the electrons in the accelerator. "Of course, you can have different levels of understanding."

One of the most practical applications of the lab's work has been the development of a "free-electron laser." Exposure to the lasers can make metals stronger and more durable.

"When they break it down in practical terms and tell me how it affects everyday products, I can kind of understand it," said Rebecca Lavoie, who attended the open house with her fiancé, Mike Taylor, and his two children. After leaving the exhibit hall, they decided to find the children's exhibits.

"A lot of this stuff is probably over their heads," Taylor said.

But there were those moments of enlightenment, like when a lab scientist was describing the theory of relativity to a group of men. One of the men figured out that objects gain mass as they gain speed.

"Einstein would have been proud," the scientist said.

— Troy Graham can be reached at 247-4741 or by e-mail at tgraham@dailypress.com