Peek in Jefferson Lab

See science in action Saturday

Jefferson Lab's open house has, in a sense, been around longer than Jefferson Lab itself.

The science research laboratory in Newport News, which operates under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Energy, first opened its doors to the public in 1992 - five years after construction began and two years before the facility was complete.

At that first open house, guests were able to observe the accelerator and check out equipment in one experimental hall. When the lab - formally titled the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - holds this year's open house on Saturday, there will be considerably more to see.

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In addition to the electron beam accelerator located 25 feet underground, guests will be able to check out the free electron laser, two experimental halls - and the ever-popular exhibit where kids and adults can try their hand at freezing items in liquid nitrogen.

"What we're trying to do is give the community a chance to see the Jefferson Lab facility," said public affairs manager Linda Ware. "Because it's running 24 hours a day and seven days a week, it's not often we can open the lab up to the public to show what happens here. But since tax dollars fund this facility, we feel like it's one of the responsibilities we have to the taxpayers - to show where their dollars are going."

Ware said she expects the open house to draw about 6,000 guests for a free tour that lasts about three hours.

The open house, held every year from 1992-'95 and every other year since then, is planned a full year in advance in order to work it into the lab's operating schedule. Of the 550-person staff, more than 200 will volunteer their time on Saturday to answer questions, give demonstrations and lead tours.

Every major area of the facility will be open, including the computer lab. The open house will also include presentations by other science-based organizations such as NASA Langley Research Center - which holds its own open house next weekend - and the Virginia Air & Space Center.

The open house uses the theme "Science is cool" in the hopes of attracting plenty of young students, but Ware says it is aimed at guests of all ages.

"We try our best to make sure there are enough hands-on activities to let kids know that science is something they can do, too; it's not just for adults," Ware said. "It's not easy to balance it so that the event is good for both kids and adults, but the good thing is that most of the scientists here are mothers and fathers themselves, so they know how to speak to children as well as adults."

Ware said the lab staff tries to vary the exhibits and demonstrations from one open house to the next, spotlighting different equipment and new experiments underway at the laboratory. But there's one thing that stays the same each time.

"We haven't changed the liquid nitrogen cryogenics show one bit," she said. "That one is so popular with everyone, with people of all ages, that we just keep it the same each time, and no one ever seems to get tired of it."

— Mike Holtzclaw can be reached at 928-6479 or by e-mail at mholtzclaw@dailypress.com.