Thousands of curious locals, including many children, ascended to the usually off-limits grounds of Berkeley’s Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on Saturday, October 2, 2010, at the Lab’s open house.
The Lab opened its gates to large numbers of members of the public for the first time in nine years for the event called “It’s All About Energy!” which featured tours, talks, demonstrations, food and entertainment.
A “fun zone” allowed children to create huge bubbles, see how superconducting materials can float a vehicle above a magnetic track, and make and test a model airplane. Just down the hill from the children’s area the rusty framework of the partially dismantled Bevatron rose, off limits to tour attendees.
The visitors did not have the run of the entire, vast, research campus but were limited, except for 15 minute bus tours, to a several acre area just beyond the crest of Charter Hill, that included an auditorium and office building, cafeteria, and the Advanced Light Source facility.
Hundreds of energetic yellow-shirted LBNL staff and volunteers explained experiments, handed out literature and directed traffic as the visitors disembarked from a convoy of shuttle buses that had climbed the Hill from an assembly point near Oxford Street.
Visitors could come for free, but were required to sign up in advance online, and present a printed pass to board the shuttle buses.
A parking lot near the arrival point was turned into a tented concourse where visitors could see an affordable high efficiency stove designed for use in Darfur and Ethiopia, examine a low noise wind turbine scaled for residential and urban use, see how “vampire” appliances use energy even when turned “off”, and examine the output of different types of high efficiency light bulbs.
Glossy handouts abounded, including posters and laminated placemats explaining the evolution of the universe and nuclear science. Visitors received “passports” they could take to various stations and have stamped, in return for a prize.
The passport offered questions tied to certain displays such as “where can you find ways to help your house stop leaking energy?”, “Where can you learn about the tiny creatures who helped clean up the Gulf oil spill?”, and “What scientific tool is so big it needs to have its own building?”
The answer to the last question was the most alluring interior space on the tour, the Advanced Light Source (ALS) housed in the shell of the circa 1930s Cyclotron building that helped make Berkeley a towering empire of atomic science.
Inside the ALS visitors could circle the perimeter, watching experiments in progress and talking to researchers.
The huge dome houses a “third-generation synchrotron” which accelerates sub-atomic particles to fantastic speeds for research. The accelerator sweeps around an interior circuit with numerous “beam lines” coming off it to direct streams of electrons into specialized experimental areas.
The experimental equipment is so complex and confusing to the layperson’s eye that at several points the building looked like the inside of a Borg Cube from “Star Trek”, with winking red lights signaling radiation, and tangled masses of equipment wrapped in tin foil.
Just below the ALS the LBNL guesthouse offered tours and enticements, including a drawing for a free night’s stay. The one-year-old three-story structure designed by Donald McDonald curves across the hillside below the Advanced Light Source facility.
Operated as a year-round onsite hotel by the Conference Services division of the UC Berkeley campus, it provides single rooms, doubles, and suites priced from $129 to $159 a night.
Staff leading tours said many of the guests are visitors and researchers at the Lab itself, but the facility is also open to people affiliated not only with the Lab but with the Berkeley campus as well.
Affiliation, one guide said, has a loose definition. A guest simply has to have “a legitimate business interest at UC.” Parents visiting a student attending the Berkeley campus would qualify, he said, although there is a restriction that no guest can be younger than 17.
One staff member mentioned that the facility has an advantage over hotel housing in Berkeley, since it stands on government land and does not pay hotel occupancy taxes.
Views from the west side rooms and the two-story lobby of the building are spectacular, down over the Lab, the Berkeley campus and the central Bay Area.
The Lab campus is a curious and sprawling jumble of buildings, roadways, and equipment dating from the 1930s to just this year. Mostly hidden from view because of its rolling site and elevation above Berkeley, it’s essentially a vast counter campus with thousands of employees, operated under the auspices of the University of California, but independent of its physical neighbor, UC Berkeley.
The two institutions are integrated, however, through joint research projects and joint appointments of many researchers.
LBNL arose from the nuclear research of its namesake, Ernest Orlando Lawrence, a prodigy professor in the Physics Department at UC who was the first individual working a public institution to win a scientific Nobel Prize.
Here and there on the property it appears some attention has been given to site planning and architecture for appearance, rather than just efficiency, but the effect is decidedly muddled.
The landscape appears in transition. Eucalyptus and Monterey pine abound but there were fresh stumps to show where some had recently been cut down, and new tree plantings seem to emphasize redwoods.
LBNL is also becoming more visible on the skyline. The ALS just recently completed a blocky new “User Support Building” wing that provides additional space for researchers, but also juts out into the view shed just above the historic Big “C” and occludes the iconic cyclotron dome from some angles.
Much of the interstitial space between buildings remains “wild”. Turkeys are a daily sight within the complex and one staff member told us that a female mountain lion and her cubs had been seeing playing just that morning on the roadway where we were walking.
Wildlife was not visible on the Open House Day; there was, however, a researcher dressed as a cow.
In a grassy courtyard, in between performances of a bluegrass band and ukulele club made up of Lab employees, LBNL Director Paul Alivisatos made brief remarks welcoming visitors to the event. “it’s a very exciting laboratory and we’re happy to have you here today, and it’s going so well I think we’re going to have these events more frequently”, he said.