The National Synchrotron Light Source

Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source, we would discover, is just that — a light source. And despite the differences in scale and the methods of production, it isn’t so different from the studio lights used by photographers. In each case, the way to get the best image is to shine a really bright light on the subject and take a picture of it. Indeed, the only respect in which the light source’s name can be misleading is that it does not confine itself to the visible light spectrum, but uses everything between infrared and x-rays.

A view of the workspaces surrounding the smaller ring at Brookhavens National Synchrotron Light Source

A view of the workspaces surrounding the smaller ring at Brookhaven's National Synchrotron Light Source

Lizzie standing with Steve Hulbert on the walkway over the smaller ring of the NSLS.

Lizzie standing with Steve Hulbert on the walkway over the smaller ring of the NSLS.

A view of the room housing the smaller ring of the NSLS. Here, you can get a sense of the rings arc.

A view of the room housing the smaller ring of the NSLS. Here, you can get a sense of the ring's arc.

A section of the smaller ring at Brookhaven’s NSLS. Focusing magnets and the wires that drive its operation are visible. After years of operation and modification, there are so many wires that it is impossible to know what they all are. They will never be untangled, merely removed wholesale when the ring is shut down after NSLS-II comes on line.

A section of the smaller ring at Brookhaven’s NSLS. Focusing magnets and the wires that drive its operation are visible. After years of operation and modification, there are so many wires that it is impossible to know what they all are. They will never be untangled, merely removed wholesale when the ring is shut down after NSLS-II comes on line.

Of course, the NSLS is not just a more-powerful-than-usual bulb. Rather, it consists of two rings, the larger of which isn’t much smaller than a football field, which house beams of electrons accelerated to high speeds. The main byproduct of this process is a fantastic excess of energy that radiates out from the ring in the form of bright light. Dozens of beamlines lead away from the ring at tangents, dividing the enormous building into discrete workspaces. When it’s running, scientists from nearly every discipline place detectors in the path of the illuminating rays so as to image a wide range of samples.

A detector with a biological sample in place at the end of a beam line emanating from the synchrotron ring.

A detector with a sample in place at the end of a beam line emanating from the light source.

A detector at the end of a beamline taking an image of a biological sample.

A detector at the end of a beamline taking an image.

Only about 5% of the NSLS was dedicated to physics research in 2008. The highest concentration of users were in the life sciences, and we poked our head into an earth sciences lab working to recreate the conditions in our planet’s mantle. My impression is that this is the continuation of a pattern that began at least with the electron microscope: tools that were initially invented for work in physics or chemistry often turn out to be more heavily used by other disciplines.

When we visited, the NSLS was gearing up for the groundbreaking of the heavily publicized NSLS-II, which is exactly what it sounds like. This new light source will be the brightest on the planet – bright enough to properly expose a moving object on a tiny scale. Presently, the exposures required for a good image are on the order of minutes, not the fractions of a second required to observe processes that unfold over time (which is to say, almost all of them). This is particularly exciting for life scientists, who will finally be able to directly observe things like protein construction as they happen.

NSLS workspace

NSLS workspace

Scientists at the NSLS working on new ways to pack magnetic information closer together without corruption.

Scientists at the NSLS working on new ways to pack magnetic information closer together without corruption.

A beamline facility under construction

A beamline facility under construction

Machine on a beamline

Machine on a beamline

-Nick

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7 responses to “The National Synchrotron Light Source

  1. hello Lizzie

    i remember you from 20 +? yrs ago. i am a friend of your fathers… my daughter is claire spera…her mom is cathy busby.
    anyway , glad to see that your journey has started. great stuff.
    hey check out the autobiography of EMILE SEGRE a buddy of enrico Fermit from the old days.. Segre went to was at berkeley RAD lab before and during Cyclotron days… very nicely written book with a lot of cool stuff on old berkeley RAD LAB days… might be interesting for you.

    good luck
    frank spera

  2. A Mind Always in Motion: The Autobiography of Emilio Segre (Hardcover)
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