Let's begin with a confession: I've lived in the Bay Area for nearly 10 years, but not until Saturday did I make time to visit the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
I know I should be ashamed. I'd taken in Giants and A's games, been to both Oakland and San Francisco zoos, walked the Japanese Tea Garden and done the Ride the Ducks tour, but I'd never made it to one of the nation's most highly acclaimed scientific research institutions.
The facility, named for famed UC Berkeley physicist and Nobel Prize winner Ernest Orlando Lawrence, is nationally recognized for its cutting-edge work in fields ranging from energy research to electron microscopy to particle acceleration.
Before accompanying the Diablo Woodworkers on a two-hour tour of the Advanced Light Source division -- one of the woodworkers is research professor and scientist Wayne Stolte -- I'd feared the subject matter might be a little weighty for a lightheaded journalist.
Then the presentation began, and I realized I was correct.
The building once housed a cyclotron, which was designed to separate isotopes of uranium, Stolte said, but now is home to a particle accelerator in which storage rings are flooded with electrons moving nearly at the speed of light and are accelerated with voltage-charged plates on a curved trajectory, which causes them to shed photons and produce high-intensity beam lines.
I scrolled through the apps on my smartphone to find a physics-to-English translator.
Stolte sensed that some of us had left our slide rules at home. He was patient in explaining all the parts of the whole and how they enabled scientists to identify the properties of different elements. I knew he was speaking to me when he said the larger and smaller storage rings resembled doughnuts. I've always liked doughnuts.
"At the end of the beam line, we do our experiments," he said. "That's where we put a bone sample, a protein crystal or, in my case, a gas -- let's say Freon molecules. We want to investigate how the molecule works."
By determining how a Freon molecule breaks up when exposed to certain wavelengths of light, scientists are able to understand its detrimental effect on the ozone layer. I'd always wondered how they did that.
Particle acceleration is done in a nearly perfect vacuum, Stolte said, exponentially greater than you'd find on the Space Shuttle. He expressed the difference in Torr units, and made some reference to "10 to the minus-11 power," but I didn't catch all of it because I was still thinking about doughnuts.
One curiosity was the amount of aluminum foil we saw folded and crinkled around scientific instruments. It's used as an insulator -- "Like around a baked potato," he said -- to keep the warmth of heated equipment from affecting the carefully monitored temperature in the lab. Who knew aluminum foil was scientific?
Thousands of experiments are done at the Advanced Light Source division every year. In fact, before most modern drugs are released, they are exposed to beam-line testing. But not every experiment delivers a ready-to-market product.
"The product of my experiments," said Stolte, "is a graph on a computer screen, which I send to a theoretician, and he explains what the little wiggle means. Then we write a paper, send it off to a journal and hope that someone reads it."
That part was easy to understand. It's the same thing I do.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.