Gizmos, Gadgets & Devices — Oh, My

Open house unveils science of Jefferson Lab

By Patrick Lee Plaisance, Daily Press
June 27, 1999

Those poor scientists. Lord knows they get the job done when it comes to expanding our universe of knowledge and moving us into the future. But ask them to explain themselves, to describe in regular language what it all means, and a thick for descends. They start muttering big, awkward words like superconductivity and terabytes.

Thankfully, the scientists at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - the Jefferson Lab in Oyster Point -- had a better idea. They spent Saturday showing people what they do instead of merely trying to tell them. And the result for hundreds of visiting adults and children was an impressive tour of gee-whiz gadgetry that could have been the launch of a national Make Science Fun Day.

In its first open house with all its equipment up and running, Jefferson Lab scientists and staff members clearly relished the attention. They planned the event with enough hot dogs, soda and bubble soap for about 4,000 visitors, and they weren't disappointed.

"People may have read about us or driven by, but now we can show them what we do," said R. Roy Whitney, a senior scientist at the lab, which features one of the most powerful and sophisticated electron beam equipments of its kind in the world. "There's something for everyone."

Indeed, small children were kept busy making bubbles and trying on foam airplane wings while standing in front of two giant fans. There was even a quiz show.

But for those interested in the cutting-edge research on the tiniest building blocks of all matter, there was no better place to be Saturday. And jokes about scientists' communication skills aside, Jefferson Lab officials put most of the physics in a form understandable even to the scientifically clueless.

Buses shuttled groups to a section of the underground, race track-shaped accelerator tunnel, where visitors got to see up close the clutter of multimillion-dollar superconducting equipment and magnets. They also got to see the lab's free electron laser facility, a spin-off project that scientists hope can be developed for several different commercial uses.

Think of the electron accelerator as a "big, high-class microscope" designed to see the building blocks of atoms, said Larry Cardman, the lab's director of physics research said. Electrons are zoomed around an underground tunnel and slammed into a variety of atoms. Tracking the quarks that fly off as a result of those collisions, scientists said, can tell us about the forces that hold atoms together.

"It's like explaining what keeps my feet here on the floor," said Charles Sinclair, the scientist in charge of the electron beam injector equipment. "It's easy to say, 'It's gravity,' but what exactly is that force holding everything together?"

The accelerator works, Cardman said, much the same way you can make waves in a bathtub. Envision the tunnel as a series of bathtubs lined end to end in such a way that waves can be synchronized to flow from one to the other. In much the same way, electrons in the emitted beam are made to "surf" on electromagnetic waves -- but at nearly the speed of light.

Then came the day's ultimate understatement from one of the top scientists of this $600 million federal facility: "Doing experiments like this is complicated," Cardman said.

At the laser building, scientists displayed polyester fabric that had been given an almost silken feel with the laser. It can treat about 1,000 yards an hour now, and scientists are hoping to increase its productivity to make it commercially valuable to makers of synthetic garments. Laser treatment, they said,could someday replace existing manufacturing techniques that depend on large amounts of toxic chemicals.

Using a small, hand-held laser, scientist Michelle Shinn showed 10-year-old Shannon Sears how lasers can be made into tools by focusing the energy beam into a tiny, intense beam of light.

Forget smoother, polyester; Shannon had better ideas for the laser. First, she said she would use it to shoot her pesky brother. But after thinking about it some more, she changed her mind.

"I'd probably go to Alaska and make it a little bit warmer," she said.