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Science Demystified

By David Scharfenberg
Friday October 04, 2002

This weekend, Berkeley residents will get a rare glimpse into the mysterious fortress on a hill – Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. 

Members of the public attending the lab’s semi-annual, kid-friendly open house Saturday will, among other things, tour the Advanced Light Source, which emits ultraviolet and X-ray light a billion times brighter than the sun, visit an “electronic petting zoo,” where they can pull apart cell phones and fax machines and isolate salmon DNA in a test tube. 

“We’re trying to get people more familiar with what we do and why we do it, so people are less intimidated,” said Ron Kolb, head of public communications for the lab. 

Kolb said many locals confuse Lawrence Berkeley with nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which focuses on national defense issues, or know about the lab only through its ongoing battle with community activists over emissions of tritium, a radioactive isotope.  

Federal research has deemed the emissions safe, lab officials say, but activists continue to raise concerns. 

The lab, founded in 1931, is administered by the federal government’s Department of Energy and the University of California and has an annual budget of $450 million. Scientists conduct research in 14 areas, ranging from life sciences and genomics to energy conservation and physics. 

The nanofabrication lab in the Center for X-Ray Optics, open to visitors on Saturday, builds microscopic devices that allow scientists to view infinitesimal particles like atoms or molecules. 

A chart on the wall shows that the devices are two to three times smaller than the grooves on an ant hair. 

“Going as small as possible is the goal here,” said Erik H. Anderson, director of the Center for X-Ray Optics. 

The nanofabrication lab is currently working with Hewlett-Packard to devise computer chip components the size of molecules in the never-ending search for faster machines. 

Visitors to the engineering division will watch a group of small, computer-controlled robots move in tandem and play with a ball.  

They’ll also get a glimpse at the division’s two rapid prototyping machines, which create small, plastic, detailed, three-dimensional models of devices designed on lab computers. 

One of the prototypes on display is a model of the Supernova Acceleration Probe, a satellite the lab hopes to launch in partnership with NASA to help determine the ultimate fate of the universe. 

Visitors to the Advanced Light Source will get a glimpse of one of the most powerful research tools on the planet, but they’ll also see the backdrop for a scene in the upcoming Universal Studios film “The Hulk.” 

The film, scheduled for a June 2003 release, will feature actor Eric Bana as the Hulk bursting through the dome of the Advanced Light Source, renamed the “Berkeley Nuclear Biotechnology Institute,” courtesy of the special effects wizardry of Industrial Light & Magic. 

“It was fun to have Hollywood here for a couple of days,” said Kolb. 

Now, the lab has its sights set on a community visit. The open house runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. On-site parking at Lawrence Berkeley, located behind the UC Berkeley campus, will be limited. Visitors are encouraged to board buses at the Downtown Berkeley BART station or at a series of UC Berkeley parking lots. Signs on Hearst Avenue will direct drivers to the appropriate lots. 


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