Lab holds open house

Thousands who visited Jefferson Lab in Newport News got a close-up look at cutting-edge science.

Some 6,000 to 7,000 visitors showed up Saturday for Jefferson Lab's biennial open house, more than twice as many as expected.

"I'm surprised, especially on so windy a day," said Linda Ware, public affairs manager for the sprawling research center off Jefferson Avenue just north of Oyster Point Industrial Park.

Although the grounds had the ambience of a fair, with food vendors scattered about, the wind was not a factor with the exhibits, which were inside buildings or in a tunnel five flights of stairs underground.

Visitors wandered freely into the exhibit areas, where lab employees were stationed at critical points to explain the often esoteric features of their work.

Boiled down to its simplest concept, the lab enables researchers to push electrons around a circular tunnel at speeds approaching that of light, then analyze what happens when the electrons hit other particles and break up into components.

Among the many visitors to the underground tunnel, which was shut down for the day, were some of Jefferson Lab's 650 employees.

"We don't get to see the tunnel," said Ware, explaining that dangerous levels of radioactivity are given off in the tunnel when it's being used.

The main reason for opening the center to the public, she said, is because it's funded by tax dollars. "It matters for the taxpayers to see what we do. It's even more important in lean budget years, like now," Ware said.

President Bush's proposed budget for 2006 would cut Jefferson Lab's funding from $85.9 million to $79 million.

Scientists from all over the world use the lab. Japan is represented in an experiment set up in one of three experimental halls. In this experiment, giant microscopes known as spectrometers examine the results of racing electrons that break up under the spectrometer's eyes. A visitor asked Terry Carlino, an operations crew chief who was serving as a guide in the lab's control center, what good can come from this research. Before Carlino could answer, another visitor, also a lab employee, noted that any research advancement — no matter how seemingly insignificant — can provide a crucial step for scientists in future experiments.

Carlino agreed but pointed out one practical application that's already emerged from research at Jefferson Lab — technology that gives higher resolution in cancer detection, on X-rays and in MRIs, he said.