Seven Nobel prize winners have worked in a laboratory on Long Island, where scientists from around the world examine the smallest particles.
Russian scientist Petr Ilinsky shows an electronic microscope at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Ilinsky works on the X-Ray Beam Position Monitoring team. (Photo by Enrique Shore)
News-Decoder recently had a rare opportunity to visit a world-class research facility called the Brookhaven National Laboratory, popularly known as BNL.
It’s a highly sophisticated operation with more than 2,600 employees, including scientists and researchers from all over the world who work on a secured area of 5,320 acres on Long Island, a couple of hours away from New York City.
The U.S. Department of Energy runs the operation. Together with other national agencies they contribute more than $582 million annually because, as its Deputy Director for Science and Technology Robert Tribble told a group of foreign journalists: “Technology comes from science. That is why Congress supports BNL.”
Universities can’t fund these large facilities independently, so in 1947, Columbia University, Cornell, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology formed a consortium to start BNL.
Since then, seven scientists have won Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry for discoveries at BNL. Today more than 4,000 researchers and scientists use the laboratory every year.
At Long Island laboratory, scientists collect data to examine the birth of the universe.
“Students Today, Scientists Tomorrow,” read one of the first slides that Dr. Tribble showed us.
BNL is perhaps best known for the the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), one of the few particle accelerators in the world, similar to one at the CERN research facility in Geneva and the only one in the United States.
At BNL, more than 1,000 scientists study subatomic building blocks — the fundamental components of matter. The huge structure is actually two accelerators in one, consisting of crisscrossing rings of superconducting magnets enclosed in a tunnel 2.4 miles in circumference.
Beams of protons are accelerated to nearly the speed of light in opposite directions, maintained in their orbits by powerful magnetic rings. The particles collide at six points around the circle where RHIC’s two rings intersect.
Thousands of collisions take place every second, and detectors collect the collision products, providing scientists with valuable data to investigate the inner workings of matter and the birth of the universe.
BNL is home to other research programs, including the National Synchrotron Light Source-II facility, which produces the brightest light source in the world.
The extremely bright beams of x-ray, ultraviolet and infrared light enable scientists to explore materials like superconductors and accelerate advances in energy, environmental science and medicine.
The laboratory is a very international place.
Visiting the Center for Functional Nanomaterials is quite an experience. There are many laboratories crowded with highly sophisticated instruments and scientists, physicists and molecular engineers working with huge electronic microscopes and state-of-the-art tools capable of exploring the properties of materials unimaginatively small, spanning just billionths of a meter.
Most rooms are sealed, and some are lit only with special ultraviolet lights, requiring scientists to wear special protective and isolating gear.
BNL offers free and open access for scientists — with certain conditions, of course.
Any scientist from any part of the world can submit a proposal to carry out research there. If the results of an approved project are shared with the community, there is no monetary charge. For a fee, private companies can apply to conduct research.
It is a very international place, but lately they have been experiencing some difficulties attracting talent from certain parts of the world, such China, Russia and India, due to visa restrictions imposed by the U.S. government.
Scientists from abroad usually come to the United States with a special H-1B visa, which has been particularly hard hit lately, with a reported spike in the number of rejected candidates.
That said, Brookhaven Laboratory remains an inspiration for future researchers and scientists.
Its Office of Educational Programs brings in more than 30,000 young students each year for workshops and events, while hosting some 250 students and professors from U.S. universities who come to BNL to participate in research internships and other programs.
Enrique Shore is a News Decoder correspondent, photographer and pictures editor with three decades experience covering World Cups, Olympics, presidential elections, summits and the first Gulf War. He was Reuters chief photographer for Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, then based in Madrid in charge of the Iberian peninsula. He later looked after media clients in Spain and Portugal. He is currently an independent photographer, editor and consultant based in New York.