A Bigger and Better Lightsource

The year was 1982. Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in Upton, New York was celebrating a milestone at its newest facility: the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) had achieved its first light. It might sound insignificant, like a baby’s first sneeze or the first time a pair of newlyweds ate a donut together. But this was a moment that scientists had been building toward for over four years. Batches of electrons rushed through the accelerator at almost the speed of light. Gigantic magnets bent the path of these electrons into a circle, forcing them to lose energy in the form of x-rays. Beamlines directed these x-rays into a detector, towards a brighter future with more science and stuff. Bottles popped, confetti rippled, crowds roared.

It was a whole different world back then,” said Richard Greene, a technician who helped to build some of the first beam lines at the NSLS. “We always cracked a bottle of champagne for every beam line.”

But in 2013, BNL entered into a new era of synchrotron radiation. The lab began phasing out the NSLS, which until then had attracted researchers from all around the world, for a bigger and brighter facility: the NSLS-II. The NSLS-II, which celebrated its own first light in 2014, is currently considered one of the world’s most advanced synchrotrons, producing x-rays up to 10,000 times brighter than the NSLS. The new facility is almost half a mile in circumference—nearly five times the circumference of the NSLS. And while the concept of synchrotrons—bunches of electrons propelled by magnets travelling around and around in giant circles—might seem abstract, the consequences of the research done at these sorts of facilities is monumental, affecting everything from technology to human health.

Before the development of synchrotron light sources in the 60s, synchrotron radiation was seen as a nuisance in the scientific community. At that time, particle accelerators were primarily used to study collision between certain particles and synchrotron radiation caused an undesired loss of energy. When scientists realized that they could use this radiation to do different experiments, they began extracting the radiation, running synchrotron experiments parasitic to these big colliders. The NSLS was one of the first particle accelerators dedicated solely to creating synchrotron light for experimentation purposes. Currently there are seven operational synchrotron facilities in the United States, all running at different energies and used for different experiments.

Click here for a map of the seven synchrotrons in the US

“The principle of a synchrotron is that when electrons go around a bend, they lose energy in the form of synchrotron light, which is basically high powered x rays,” said Robert Rainer, one of the lead operators at the NSLS-II. “Those are the x rays that people come here to use.”

Rainer explained that in the light source, everything begins with the electron gun, which generates electron beams and feeds them into the linear accelerator (LINAC). The electrons must travel in a vacuum so they don’t encounter any resistance. Electromagnets and microwave radio frequency fields are used to accelerate the electrons—the electrons ride the radio frequency field like surfers riding a wave in the ocean. The electrons then enter the booster ring, where they are accelerated to approximately 99.9 percent the speed of light, before they are injected into the storage ring. In the storage ring, they’re steered using an array of magnets. In the photos below, the blue magnets are dipole magnets, which bend the motion of the electrons. The yellow magnets are quadrupoles, which focus and defocus the path of the electrons, and the red and orange magnets are sextupoles, which take outlying electrons and bring them into a closer path. The smaller magnets, which are also dipoles, are corrector magnets.  These magnets keep the beam in line. As the electrons go around turns in the storage ring and lose energy in the form of synchrotron radiation, they are given more energy in the form of radio frequency cavities. The synchrotron radiation lost in this process is directed down a beamline and used for experiments.

According to Timur Shaftan, an accelerator physicist at NSLS-II, in the early 2000s scientists came to the realization that the NSLS was becoming too old—other machines were providing brighter and more intense x-rays to enable more exciting experiments. So scientists decided to construct a new light source, the NSLS-II, which would support more beamlines equipped in a much better way.

“It’s a different level of science now,” Shaftan said. “Once you have a better source of light you can see much clearer, you can see many more details and have a look at those phenomena that nature hid for us.”

The NSLS-II is considered the first optimized third-generation synchrotron in the United States. Third-generation light sources are lightsources which  can support insertion devices like wiggler magnets and undulators. These insertion devices are magnetic structures that produce extremely bright and focused synchrotron radiation by forcing the electron beam in the storage ring to perform wiggles, or undulations, as they pass through the device. One of the most exciting details of the NSLS-II is its small source size, also known as its small emittance, bright x-rays. The x-rays produced by the NSLS-II are coherent, similar to the light in a laser. Unlike a regular lightbulb, which produces many waves and spreads light everywhere, lasers produce a very small spot of light with just one wave. Yong Chu, who is the lead physicist at the X-ray Nanoprobe Beamline at the NSLS-II, explained that because the x-rays are so much brighter, you can do work that couldn’t be done at other places.

“Because our source size is so small we can jam pack much more photons in a small area so we can get much better sensitivity when making measurements,” Chu said.

Peter Siddons had been working at the NSLS since 1985. He is now the head of the detector development group at the NSLS-II. Siddons explained that the new synchrotron makes a lot of new things possible. One of these things is the spacial resolution of measurements done. At the NSLS, scientists could focus the x-ray beam into a 10 micrometer spot. At the NSLS-II, scientists are hoping to focus it down to one nanometer.

“The job of this group is to come up with bigger and better detectors to suit the increased capability of the NSLS-II,” he said. This will allow scientists to study a broad range of samples like minerals, rocks, machinery, biological samples and disease tissue.

There are four main types of experiments that are done at synchrotron light sources: diffraction, scattering, microscopy and spectroscopy. Topics ranging from the proteins in your body, to the soil you walk on, to the batteries in your phone and the chips in your computer are being explored at these facilities.

Microscopy, or imaging, was the first area of application since the discovery of x-rays. One thing that microscopy can look at is drug transport within the human body. Rather than swallowing or injecting a drug, scientists can allocate the drug to a nanoparticle which will travel around until it finds the spot the drug needs to be released. By using synchrotron radiation to explore this method, scientists could significantly improve the aim or focus of drug treatments.

Spectroscopy, which is often associated with microscopy, is another major area of work being done at synchrotrons. Juergen Thieme, the lead physicist at the Submicron Resolution X-ray Spectrocopy Beamline at NSLS-II, explained that spectroscopy, which excites the atoms in a material, is about understanding the chemistry of a sample. An example he gave was clay particles.

“Clay particles are everywhere in the environment,” Thieme said. “Using spectroscopy you can understand better how toxicants are confined and cannot be transported into ground water and how nutrients are spread out when you put them on the soil in your home garden.”

Scattering looks at how amorphous materials scatter x-rays to determine its structure, how it’s made and how it changes based on certain conditions such as high pressure or high temperature. Chu explained that x-ray scattering can be used to test out materials that might be used in airplanes or spaceships to determine how they’ll hold up. This allows scientists to understand how certain materials fail and how to design better materials.

Diffraction uses x-rays to determine the structure of atoms within a crystal by determining how the atoms interact with incoming light. One major use of diffraction is in protein crystallography, where scientists study the structure of proteins to understand what they look like and how they perform.

Vivian Stojanoff is a protein crystallographer who was hired by BNL in 2000 to manage and direct one of the protein crystallography beamlines at the NSLS. When the NSLS closed, she became in charge of coordinating the user program during the construction of the protein crystallography beamlines. Stojanoff explained that the fact that scientists have now identified the genes for ovarian cancer and breast cancer, the progress being made in the research for Alzheimer’s and the development of medicines for osteoporosis were all made possible with the use of synchrotron radiation.

“One of thing we have been seeing since the late 90s is an explosion in the new molecular structures of proteins and enzymes. All the new medicines we see, new vaccines, new treatments for many diseases, are a result of all the structural work that has been done at synchrotrons,” she said.

Having a coherent light source, like the one at NSLS-II, is important when doing experiments in diffraction and scattering because it allows scientists to know that the patterns they are picking up in their detectors are all coming from their samples, and not from the light source. But one downside, Stojanoff explained, is that even though it will allow scientists to look at many more samples and to study the dynamics of the molecules, the source size is so brilliant and strong that it will destroy samples. Scientists will have to learn how to do the data collection with the new light source.

“It’s opening whole new areas of study that we have not had before,” Stojanoff said.

Jean Jordan-Sweet is an IBM researcher who had worked at the NSLS for 34 years. Jordan-Sweet uses diffraction to enable newer generations of computer chips to get made. Jordan-Sweet said that she thinks that the new technologies offered at the NSLS-II will be very useful and she is interested in learning to use coherent light to do measurements.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for us to really investigate what other kinds of measurements we can use to understand chips and the materials that go into making them,” she added.

Scientists and technicians who feel sad about the passing of BNL’s first light source can feel comforted knowing that its successor is considered the newest and most advanced light source in the world. For now. Though the NSLS-II is only running six project beamlines at the moment, BNL is expecting both the number of beamlines and the user base for these beamlines to grow exponentially. When asked their favorite aspects about working at Brookhaven, everyone agreed that it’s the mixture of different people and ideas from around the world and the sense of community that working at such a facility fosters.

“People from different very different fields are constantly helping each other out with their research,” Rainer said. “Being on the forefront of science and being involved in such a collaborative effort are my favorite things about working here.”

NSLS from Ali Sundermier on Vimeo.

NY Times Data Journalism

The NY Times published a story called A Rogue State Along Two Rivers, which used maps and photos to explain how ISIS came to control large portions of Syria and Iraq. I like this piece of data journalism because it’s aesthetically appealing and it takes a super complicated topic and it makes it digestible and visual, and therefore easier to follow. I think without the graphics the story would be a lot less engaging and more difficult to get through.

Doggone Power: A Story about Dogs and Dominance

Chloe in her most subordinate pose.
Chloe Sundermier in her most submissive pose.

Cute and cuddly and lusting for power. Though it might seem endearing when dogs fight for their owner’s attention, dominance can sometimes be a dangerous thing. The approach to handling it has been a source of controversy, resulting in a struggle between supporters of negative reinforcement training and positive reinforcement training. While many dog lovers believe that a firm hand is the best medicine for a dog with dominance issues, others think that this approach is actually harmful to dogs and prefer friendlier training tactics. This audio story features four different people who have experience training and owning dogs to get a closer look at how dogs show dominance and the best ways to handle these power hungry canines.

The best apps for livestreaming videos of bacon

This weekend I did a side-by-side comparison of the live video apps Meerkat and Periscope by live streaming videos of bacon cooking and my cat and dog fighting.

periscope-iphone6-hero[1] Meerkat[1]

The first major difference I noticed is that Meerkat had a superior interface: I love Meerkats and I love the color yellow. Periscope’s icon is a weird red crescent moon inside an upside down tear drop against a blue background. The interface doesn’t even have an animal of any sort. aaeaaqaaaaaaaaijaaaajgm2zdgwzjawltlhyzktngm5ni05zmnhlwu3nmy3mdfmmtu4ng[1]

I’m no spring chicken and I’m not afraid to admit that I am often paralyzed by inadequacy when it comes to new apps. I had no idea whether my live video was posting to my twitter. I could only figure out after the fact. Meerkat posted to my twitter automatically, which is maybe a bad thing if something really embarrassing happens in the video. With Periscope I didn’t have this problem because after I was done recording the videos I recorded simply disappeared into the etherweb, with no proof of ever having existed. This is probably fore the best since I accidentally flipped the camera during the video so the big finale is the frantic face I’m making as I try to figure out how to flip it back. Which I chalk about to another flaw in Periscope’s design.

Meerkat  / At the zoo / Novosibirsk / Siberia / 24.07.2012Aside from these differences, Meerkat and Periscope are virtually identical, serving the same purpose with practically the same features and usability. If I had to pick the superior product, it would obviously be Meerkat because meerkats.  Howeever, I don’t think I would use either app because frankly there is very rarely something occurring in my life that is interesting enough to live stream. And furthermore I will always be scared that something humiliating or inappropriate will occur and it will be released into the internet for the entire world to see with no opportunity to edit or cut.

That being said, I have no idea where any of the videos I recorded went and I have no idea how to get them back. Otherwise I’d post them here. In their place, I will provide word descriptions so you can imagine: a 15 pound maltipoo and a 20 pound orange cat, pawing and growling and battling to the death in the arena of my kitchen. Three strips of bacon sizzling very slowly on a black pan, flat pink slices of meet slowly reddening and bubbling to life. Bacon[1]

Invisible podcasts about invisible things: a visible review of Invisibilia

According to NPR’s website, Invisibilia “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” Laura Miller and Alix Spiegel are the voices behind the podcast and they cover things ranging from entanglement and empathy to fear to expectations. So Invisibilia is a podcast about stuff we can’t see. And considering that podcasts are pretty much a thing we can’t physically see, it’s kind of perfect.

quantum-entanglement1[1]I think the topics covered in Invisibilia surprisingly lend themselves really well to nat sound. In the first half of the story Entanglement about the woman with synesthesia Miller and Spiegel included busy nat sound of supermarkets and streets to show how it might overwhelm the woman. The nat sound of the daughter’s graduation was really powerful and helped to show the significance of the woman attending her daughter’s graduation despite the physical toll it might have on her. Even in the beginning when they introduced the concept of quantum entanglement, which wouldn’t produce any audible sound, they managed to incorporate nat sound by playing the beep the machine makes when the photons become successfully entangled. The nat sound of Maria Bamford in the end of the podcast was super annoying.


The voice of the hosts are clear and engaging. They speak slowly, especially when explaining complicated ideas, but are also animated enough to keep people listening. Their tones express just enough feeling to portray the emotional complexity of the story, without being too emotional.

I think transitions between the different sections of stories could be a little smoother. I liked what they did with the transition between quantum entanglement, synesthesia and universal empathy but they didn’t really connect these things strongly enough. The introduction did a really good job of establishing a topic and describing it in a really interesting, clear and engaging way. But there were times when I didn’t really understand the jumps they made. It also took a long time for them to explain that the woman’s synesthesia was caused by actually seeing someone experiencing a feeling, not just from the feeling happening. I think this was a crucial piece of information to understand her story. And even once it was established it wasn’t very firmly established. Still, I like how they move from a super complex scientific concept, to one particular woman’s experience with a form of empathy or “entanglement” to the idea that, to some extent, we ALL experience a form of this. I think the second to last part was really important to drive the story home and make it relatable. I didn’t particularly like the way the podcast ended. I think they could have done a much better job tying everything together. Maybe they could have ended on the more universal note. Or they could have tied Bamford’s “entanglement” with her mother with the similarities to the mother and daughter in the first half of the podcast.

Miller and Spiegel incorporate many different strong voices into their stories but sometimes it’s hard to tell who is talking. Other than that I think they were really able to balance the piece with expert voices, voices of people directly involved and voices of regular people. In Entanglement, the part where the daughter is talking about her mother and you can hear that she is crying was extremely moving. Even though the part about Maria Bamford and entanglement between mother and daughter was pretty annoying, it was interesting to see how on point Bamford’s imitation of her mother was and how her mom reacts to her comedy.

Miller and Spiegel show a lot of personality with really nice descriptions and a lot of well-placed humor. They also are very transparent about the reporting process, even describing the drive to one of their sources houses. I also think that the idea of taking these feelings and experiences that we can’t physically see and making them visible just with sounds is a really cool concept. Overall I was engaged with the story and I like the direction they took it in. I have a pretty low attention span so the fact that I was able to listen to their podcasts straight through is impressive.

Tracking the Solar Impulse 2 on its Journey Around the World

1911_Wright_Glider[1]On Dec. 23, 1986, the Rutan Voyager completed its journey around the world. Built 83 years after the Wright Brothers constructed the first airplane, the Rutan Voyager was the first airplane to make its way around the world without stopping. The coveted flight around the world was not a particularly easy task back then. The very first aerial circumnavigation in 1924 took the United States Army Air Service a little over 175 days to complete. In 1937, Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific attempting the same task.

Solar-Impulse-2-b[1]Airplanes have come a long way since then. Enter: The Solar Impulse 2, the world’s very first solar-powered aircraft to attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Today the Solar Impulse 2 began its five-month journey, taking off from Abu Dabhi earlier this morning. The event is being covered by a large range of news outlets, ranging from broadcast to print to blogs. Here’s how a few of these news outlets are doing in their coverage of the Solar Impulse 2:

2517999816[1]Newspaper: Gulf News has done a very thorough job in its coverage of the Solar Impulse 2, posting a bunch of articles and updates about different aspects of the flight. Their photo galleries and captions provide an angle to the story that other news sites don’t. Their photos also do a great job of showing the human aspect of the story. The problem with the way they present their information (frequent articles) is that you have to do a lot of clicking to get the whole picture, which a lot of people might not have patience for. It would have been more effective if they could have offered a more comprehensive piece to accompany these shorter articles.

_81454910_solar_impulse_624in[1]Broadcast: BBC News offers the most accessible and interactive coverage. The BBC provides a lot of different media ranging from photos to infographics to videos. Unlike other news sites, which simply offer videos of the take-off, the BBC also includes a video guide to the inside of the Solar Impulse 2. The map and the infographic about the differents parts of the plane are really helpful for building an understanding of how

Blog: Wired.co.uk‘s coverage of the Solar Impulse 2 is pretty brief and a little scarce, including only one photo and no other media. What it does well is it succinctly wraps up the most important information and goes over the technical aspects of the flight with a little more authority than the other news outlets mentioned. It also does a good job outlining the hardships the airplane will face on its long journey across the world.

In terms of social media, I think it would work best to show examples of how these news sites used social media side-by-side.

gulf wired

amosJonathan Amos at the BBC had a more exciting approach to tweeting about the Solar Impulse 2 than the writers at Wired and Gulf News. Rather than simply type in a headline and toss in a cool pic, Amos teased his followers with exclusive information, giving the BBC an edge on social media.

Overall, I think the BBC did the best job balancing background, technical information and logistics in a compelling and easy-to-read way.

Paul Colangelo: Not Just a Fish Photographer

During my frantic scramble to find a good example of photojournalism on the internet, I stumbled across a photo essay by Paul Colangelo, which I wrote about in my previous blog post. I noticed that Colangelo did an excellent job taking advantage of social media, like twitter and instagram, to spread the word about his stories and share his best photos.

MAC46_PHOTO_ESSAY_SALMON_POST03-660x370[1]Colangelo describes himself as a documentary photographer focused on environmental issues and wildlife. He is a National Geographic grantee and has had his work published in a bunch of wildlife/outdoorsy publications. The first thing I noticed about Colangelo was his ability to get unique shots that provide the viewer with angles and perspectives they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. His photo essay on the salmon run had underwater shots of salmon and close-up shots of salmon in nets.

Colangelo also has some pretty awesome underwater shots in Beluga, a photo essay about Beluga whales. But similar to the salmon he focuses on in The Great Migration, the beluga whales face many struggles, mostly due to humans. After seeing photos of these animals looking so friendly and alive it’s especially hard to look at photos of them dying, especially in the photos of the beluga whales, where the water becomes filled with their blood.beluga bloodColangelo’s photos depict more than just animals. He has some incredible landscape photos with vibrant colors and contrast that really put the reader in the middle of the environment he’s photographing.riverBut he also features macro shots, bringing the viewer as close as possible to the actions to pick up details they might otherwise have missed.macroColangelo is active on social media, facebook and twitter. He uses instagram to share his coolest shots with a wider forum of people. On twitter Colangelo makes commentary on the shots, something that is missing from the photo gallery on his website. This gives me photos more context and makes them easier to understand.