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Shining the Light on a Decade of Great Science

January 09, 2004
 
Feature

Contact: Lynn Yarris, lcyarris@lbl.gov

When it was first proposed in the early 1980s under the leadership of then Berkeley Lab director David Shirley, skeptics called it “Shirley’s Temple” and questioned the value of a synchrotron optimized for the production of x-ray and ultraviolet light. Today, ten years after it began operations, with the number of scientists that have made use of its light approaching a thousand, Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS) has silenced the skeptics and ushered in a golden era for synchrotron radiation research.

The Advanced Light Source is the world’s leading third-generation synchrotron light source.

“The scientific case for a third-generation soft x-ray facility such as the ALS had always been fundamentally sound. However, getting the larger scientific community to believe it was an uphill battle,” says ALS director Daniel Chemla, a physicist recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the optical and electronic properties of materials, and the man credited with making the ALS one of the nation’s premier scientific user facilities.

“As usual in science, the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Chemla says. “That’s the only way to counter skepticism. Now that we’ve been generating outstanding science for several years, we’ve established that we’re a world leading facility in areas of research that only a few years ago some of our ‘friends’ did not think could be done at the ALS.”

Ground was broken for the ALS in 1988, about three years after DOE’s Energy Research Advisory Board recommended its construction to then Secretary of Energy John Herrington. Construction of the ALS was led by project manager Jay Marx, a physicist who’d directed the PEP-4 project, one of the largest particle physics experiments of its time.

“We tried to be realistic from the start about how long it would take to build the ALS and how much it would cost,” Marx once told an interviewer. He and his group succeeded magnificently, bringing the ALS project in ahead of schedule by about three days, and about $2,000 under its $100 million design and construction budget.

The ALS was commissioned in March of 1993, and the official dedication took place on the morning of October 22, 1993. At that dedication, current Berkeley Lab director Charles Shank cited five individuals whose contributions were critically important to the project’s completion: Jay Marx, Dave Attwood, Ron Yourd, Alan Jackson, Klaus Halbach, and Klaus Berkner. “We are very proud of all of you,” Shank said.

The early years of the ALS were not without their trials and tribulations. Budget crunches, delays in the construction of new beamlines, and organizational difficulties raised concerns. Perhaps the darkest moments came in 1997, following a Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee review panel of DOE’s synchrotron light sources chaired by Robert Birgeneau of MIT. In the BESAC report, the ALS was given “low priority,” mainly as a result of user criticisms.

The ALS staff gathers under the dome originally built for Berkeley Lab’s 184-inch cyclotron in the 1940s.

In response to that report, Shank elevated the ALS to divisional standing within Berkeley Lab and named Chemla as its new director. In addition, Shank named Neville Smith as Deputy for the ALS scientific program, and Ben Feinberg Deputy for ALS operations. “Together this management team will provide the leadership necessary for the ALS going into the future,” Shank said at the time. “This is a critically important time in the history of the ALS, and all of us at the Laboratory have much to do to assure its continuing vitality, both scientifically and technologically.”

Under the leadership of Chemla and his management team, the ALS blossomed. In the spring of 2000, the facility underwent a second BESAC review, chaired by Yves Petroff, Director General of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. This time it passed with flying colors.

The landmark ALS points the way to a bright future for science using synchrotron radiation.

“It is clear that the ALS is doing an outstanding job in many areas and that none of the criticisms of the earlier review are still valid,” Petroff declared. The Petroff panel especially praised Chemla’s efforts to establish a “productive, respectful and direct two-way communication” between ALS management and the facility’s user community. “The ALS positions Berkeley Lab to be a world leader [as a synchrotron radiation source] for many years to come,” the Petroff panel concluded.

Today, on the site once known as Charter Hill, where Berkeley Lab founder Ernest O. Lawrence built his famous 184-inch cyclotron, the ALS stands as a landmark of the city of Berkeley and an ongoing scientific success story. ALS director Chemla recently challenged his management team to formulate a succinct mission statement. He was pleased with the result: “Support users in doing outstanding science.”

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