Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

on January 22, 2014 at 5:00 PM


Founded in 1931 by Nobel Prize winning physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is one of 17 Energy Department National Labs. Located in the hills above the University of California-Berkeley campus, Berkeley Lab plays host to 4,200 scientists, engineers, support staff and students conducting research in areas ranging from supercomputing to physics and beyond.

10. Berkeley Lab is home to the world’s most powerful microscope. Unveiled in 2008, TEAM, an electron microscope, can produce images with a resolution of half an angstrom, which is less than the diameter of a single hydrogen atom.

9. In the 1970s, scientists at Berkeley Lab developed a technology that would revolutionize the lighting industry — electronic ballasts. Electronic ballasts control the current flowing through a fluorescent light, substantially reducing the energy use of the light. A 2001 National Academy of Sciences study found that electronic ballasts sold through 2005 would provide $15 billion in energy savings.

8. In 1946, Berkeley Lab mechanical engineer Cyrill Orly designed the now internationally recognized symbol that indicates the presence of radiation. Initially designed when the 184-inch cyclotron was being completed at Berkeley Lab, Orly based his design, a center dot with three wings, on how the particles burst in a small cloud chamber that he had assembled earlier. Orly set the symbol in roman violet, a color used by scientists at the time to indicate the presence of very precious items, on a blue background.

7. In the 1950s, Berkeley Lab scientist Hal Anger conducted important research on medical imaging that led to the development of the scintillation camera, which enables physicians to detect tumors and conduct other medical diagnoses by imaging gamma rays emitted by radioactive isotopes. The scintillation camera evolved into other game-changing medical imaging systems, such as the PET (positron emission tomography) scan.

6. Berkeley Lab‘s Advanced Light Source, a user facility available to researchers from government, the private sector and academia, produces light in the x-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum that is one billion times brighter than the sun. This incredible tool offers unprecedented opportunities for research in materials science, biology, chemistry, physics and the environmental sciences.

5. Berkeley Lab physicist Carl Haber developed a way to digitally restore old audio recordings that are too fragile to play, an innovation for which he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2013. The technology works by optically scanning the surface of audio media — such as wax cylinders, tinfoil recordings, and shellac discs — and then applying image analysis methods to recover the data and reduce the noise of scratches and other damage. This technology has allowed Haber’s team to restore a 128-year-old recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice (enabling people to hear the famed inventor speak for the first time), a 100-year-old recording of writer Jack London’s voice, the oldest playable recording of an American voice and the oldest recording of a recognizable human voice.

4. Scientists at Berkeley Lab have been involved in the discovery of 16 elements on the periodic table, including technetium, which has revolutionized the field of medical imaging, and americium, which is widely used in smoke detectors.

3. Berkeley Lab played an important role in the Human Genome Project, an international scientific effort to map the human genome. The Energy Department’s Joint Genome Institute, managed in part by Berkeley Lab, sequenced human chromosomes 5, 16 and 19, which are regions of the genome implicated in diabetes, atherosclerosis and asthma.

2. Berkeley Lab scientist Melvin Calvin identified the path that carbon takes in photosynthesis, a discovery for which he won the 1961 Nobel prize in chemistry. Calvin and his team discovered that sunlight acts on the chlorophyll in a plant to fuel the manufacturing of organic compounds, rather than on carbon dioxide as scientists previously believed.

1. Berkeley Lab scientists solved one of the greatest mysteries in history: what happened to the dinosaurs? In 1980, a team of scientists led by Berkeley’s Walter Alvarez determined that a large asteroid, roughly the size of San Francisco, slammed into the Earth 65-million years ago, leading to the mass extinction event that killed the dinosaurs, and allowed for the ascension of mammals. It has subsequently been determined that the site of the impact is the Chicxulub crater, a 180-kilometer-wide, 20-kilometer-deep impact crater off the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico.