Tuesday, January 22, 2013

At JLab where the nucleus is king

 FUSIONISTA: Notes from the landscape of the National Labs

I know I am lucky -- part of my job is to occasionally visit my colleagues at other DOE National Laboratories, where I get to meet some of the best scientists in the world and, equally exciting, view their top-notch, one-of-a-kind, supercool equipment.

Earlier this month, I was able to visit Dean Golembeski, director of public affairs at The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, a place we call "JLab," mainly so we can converse about it without overly cluttering up our sentences. JLab was kind enough to host a meeting of a group of chief communications officers from all of the DOE's National Labs.

Like the researchers at PPPL, the scientists at JLab are after big game. Physicists there are exploring the innermost realm of matter -- the nucleus of the atom. They think of their work, in the words of accelerator physicist Steve Suhring, as applying a "giant microscope" to nature. Their goal is to discover the origins of matter, improving our understanding of its building blocks and identifying the forces that transform it. It's a lofty goal and a perfect one for a National Lab, where scientists explore basic research for the good of the U.S. and humanity. But how, precisely, do JLab scientists study something as infinitesimal as a nucleus, located at the center of the atom, a speck in itself?

Allow me to show you how JLab does it.

Here, JLab staff scientist Ari Palczewski explains how scientists construct all the basic elements they need to make their accelerator, including supercold vacuum devices known as "cryomodules" and a giant microscope called Cyclops:


JLab accelerator physicist Steve Suhring gives one of the best descriptions I've heard of how an accelerator works, using a mere whiteboard:


Scientists at JLab may be peering into the ultrasmall, but they definitely think big.

Here's a High Resolution Magnetic Spectrometer that uses electrons to examine matter more closely. It's a whopper, weighing in at 240 tons:

And here is physicist Steve Suhring guiding me and a group of my colleagues deep underground in the long corridor that parallels the accelerator track:

We know that so many of the modern marvels we take for granted -- cell phones, MRI machines, cancer medications -- would never have existed without fundamental scientific research. Leaving JLab, I find myself grateful for the efforts of everyone there and all of the National Labs, toiling to learn and benefit all.


Fusionista Kitta MacPherson is the director of communications at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and an award-winning science writer.