LBNL Masthead A-Z IndexBerkeley Lab mastheadU.S. Department of Energy logoPhone BookJobsSearch
ALSNews Features
ALS Scientists Patent Technique To Dramatically Advance Grating-Based Spectroscopy Print

Gratings – optical elements used to separate light in spectroscopy applications – have been in use since the early 19
th century. Developments in the late 19th century led to the manufacture of gratings by highly precise ruling with a diamond onto a metallic surface. Many gratings are still produced today using the same technique. Holographic methods and ion etching are also used, but all of these techniques result in gratings that contain significant imperfections, which limits resolution.

Watch a video about this topic...

However, a new type of ultra-high diffraction grating recently patented by members of the ALS Experimental Systems Group (ESG), working with colleagues from Berkeley Lab’s Center for X-ray Optics, stands to revolutionize the resolution capabilities of soft x-ray spectroscopy. The key to the new technique is the production of a near atomically perfect substrate, using the anisotropic etching of silicon.

Howard Padmore, head of the ALS Experimental Systems Group, talks about the ultra-high diffraction gratings his group recently developed. See a video of Howard and Dmitriy describing their work.

“Essentially, we’ve discovered a way to make atomically perfect gratings,” says Howard Padmore, head of ESG. “We’re able to make them with very high line density and to make them diffract in high orders, all of which gets us hugely improved resolution and throughput.”

The most serious imperfection in traditional gratings is micro- and nano-scale roughness, which in a reflection grating leads to background scattered light. The consequence, which has a large impact on spectroscopy capabilities, is that gratings are largely limited to 2D surface structures. Much higher efficiency and vastly improved resolution can be achieved with 3D periodic gratings, but this requires perfect interfaces and therefore a perfect substrate. The 3D structure is made by deposition of high and low Z alternate layers on the grating substrate, so that imperfections in the substrate are transferred and amplified in subsequent layers. A good 3D grating therefore needs as close to an atomically perfect substrate as possible.

ESG Scientist Dmitriy Voronov at Beamline 6.3.2, where he tests and characterizes the diffraction capabilities of the new gratings he’s developed.

Dmitriy Voronov, an ESG scientist involved in the development of the new grating technique, created the patentable, atomically perfect grating by using a perfectly suited substrate material: silicon. Since silicon etches in alkali solutions roughly 1000 times faster in some directions than others, a crystalline silicon grating can be created by cutting the crystal so that the slow etching direction is a few degrees from the surface plane. Etching a lithographically defined pattern results in fast etching along the <111> planes, leaving a perfect sawtooth pattern in the silicon. The residual defects are at the level of 1 atomic plane. This near perfect substrate allows the growth of the 3D grating to the necessary perfection. The result is improved efficiency over today’s gratings, with an increase in resolution of up to a factor of 20 for similar conditions.

These new gratings can be applied across a wide range of x-ray science applications. One of the most promising of these is resonant inelastic x-ray scattering (RIXS), a spectroscopy technique that measures both the energy and momentum change of a scattered photon. Unlike traditional photoelectron spectroscopy, RIXS gives scientists element-specific data. The current generation of spectrometers doesn’t provide the resolution needed to fully exploit RIXS, but a higher resolution, higher efficiency grating would resolve this.

These cross-sectional images of the ultra-high diffraction gratings patented by the ALS Experimental Systems Group show the unique structure of saw-tooth grooves with atomically smooth facets.


“RIXS is one of the biggest things to happen in x-ray science in the past decade; we need to move from the 100 meV resolution of present instruments to the 5 meV scale of photoemission, and this should be possible using these new techniques” says Padmore.

Voronov says that fabrication of x-ray gratings with the classical ruling technique is quite a slow process — it can take weeks or even months to rule the required number of lines. Moreover, the diamond ruling does not provide superior smoothness of the grooves, which is crucial for 3D gratings. The number of lines and high-order diffraction are key to the technique’s effectiveness since they determine the resolution.

“The anisotropic etch technique we use guarantees almost perfect surface finish of the grooves and a slope of groove’s facets, enabling high-order operation of a diffraction grating,” says Voronov.

“The fact that we can rule these gratings with a very high line density and make them diffract efficiently in a high order means we get higher resolving power,” says Padmore.

With a patent in place, Padmore’s hope is that a company sees the technique as a worthwhile investment and begins commercial production. Until then, the implementation of these gratings at the ALS and other similar facilities will depend on funding. The next steps at ALS will be the integration of the gratings in a real spectrometer and the validation of this new approach. After 200 years of research and application, much still remains to be done to perfect the diffraction grating, one of the most useful and widely used instruments in physical science.



Voronov D L, Anderson E H, Gullikson E M, Salmassi F, Warwick T, Yashchuk V V and Padmore H A, Opt. Lett. 37 (2012) 1628

Voronov D L, Gawlitza P, Cambie R, Dhuey S, Gullikson E M, Warwick T, Braun S, Yashchuk V V and H.A. Padmore, JAP 111 (2012) 093521

Voronov D L, Anderson E H, Cambie R, Cabrini S, Dhuey S D, Goray L I, Gullikson E M, Salmassi F, Warwick T, Yashchuk V V and Padmore H A, Opt. Express 19 (2011) 6320

Voronov D L, Ahn M, Anderson E H, Cambie R, Chang Ch-H, Gullikson E M, Heilmann R K, Salmassi F, Schattenburg M L, Warwick T, Yashchuk V V, Zipp L and Padmore H A, Opt. Lett. 35, (2010) 2615

2013 Director's New Year Address Print

Looking Forward and Celebrating 20 Years in 2013


falocneWe recently sat down with ALS Director Roger Falcone to talk about what 2013 has in store for the ALS. An immediate answer is - a celebration - as the ALS marks its 20th year of operation. We’ll spend some time this year looking back at what we’ve accomplished over the past couple of decades and forward to how we’ll continue to contribute to the future of scientific research.

The next few months at the ALS will be both busy and exciting as we prepare for our annual shutdown in February and for a DOE budget review in March, says Falcone. The shutdown will bring some long-anticipated upgrades and implementations to our facility and the budget review will give the ALS an opportunity to revisit, fine-tune, and prioritize our strategic plan. We continue to improve our accelerator so that we maintain our leadership as one of the brightest soft x-ray synchrotrons in the world — a valuable enabling resource for thousands of users.

“Our strategic plan captures our best ideas about how we will work with users to stay at the forefront of science,” says Falcone. “The roadmap for how we do that will be informed by where the DOE and other agencies are focusing resources.”

One of the DOE’s major focus areas in 2013 will continue to be sustainable energy, says Falcone. The ALS has continually played a role in this arena by partnering with scientists involved in major sustainable energy efforts, including JCAP, an ongoing effort in artificial photosynthesis, and JCSER, a new energy storage initiative.

“We’ve always done world-leading research, and that has put us in a position to contribute directly to these grand-challenge missions that the DOE has taken on,” says Falcone. That also means we need to continue our basic research mission to be prepared for the grand challenges in the future.

New ALS instrumentation plans in 2013 such as our AMBER beamline proposal will build upon existing ALS capabilities for supporting energy research.

Partnerships and collaborations with other divisions at the Lab will also inform our focus and strategy, says Falcone. With Omar Yaghi as the new director of the Molecular Foundry, we are looking more closely at how we can expand our small-molecule crystallography capabilities to provide the best research capabilities for new functional materials including metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which would also align well with the DOE’s interest in mesoscale research.

2012 ALS Open House Print

More than 6000 people came up the hill to see what is happening at Berkeley Lab during Open House on Saturday, October 13, and more than 1500 of them came even further up the hill to visit the ALS for tours, talks, and hands-on activities, all of which helped them understand how we use electrons, magnets, microscopes, and computers to conduct research at the ALS. At the X-Ray Café, ALS staff and scientists spoke one-on-one with guests about how the ALS works, why and how scientists want to use it, how it is funded, and plans for the future. Inside the ring, visitors heard science stories from beamline scientists. You can see more candid photos of the Open House on the ALS flickr site.

2012 ALS User Meeting Highlights Print

audience 2012 user meetingALS Users’ Executive Committee Chair Brandy Toner launched this year’s User Meeting with a warm welcome to the 417 registered attendees who gathered from around the world to attend plenary sessions, workshops, and social gatherings. Berkeley Lab Deputy Director Horst Simon then extended his own welcome, touching upon the importance of the synergy between the ALS and the Lab as the ALS begins a collaboration with the Lab’s computational research program, which Simon previously led, to solve data management challenges. ALS Division Director Roger Falcone thi(at left) provided a broad overview of the state of the ALS, covering budgets, important research areas, and user demographics. Falcone was pleased to point out the jump in the number of refereed publications last year and notable science highlights, which communicated ALS advances in structural biology, battery research, and fundamental science. Falcone acknowledged the work of Simon Morton and Jeff Dickert at the BCSB beamline this year, which won them an R&D100 Award.

DOE Associate Director of Science for Basic Energy Science (BES), Dr. Harriet Kung, began her presentation with a discussion of new opportunities for mesoscale science, which the DOE sees giving rise to interesting possibilities for integration of computation, characterization, and synthesis. Regardless of uncertainties in funding, which Kung described as “a very challenging situation,” BES is looking forward to continuing its commitment to science with a focused interest on clean energy science and advances in computational power. Kung detailed BES efforts to inform taxpayers about the benefits of facilities and programs through various communications efforts.

Don Medley, Berkeley Lab’s Head of Federal Government Relations, continued Kung’s discussion of communication efforts with a lively talk about building support for science among our elected officials through education and outreach. Monica Metzler, Chair of the Illinois Science Council, followed with an entertaining and informative message about communication techniques that make presentations most effective.

The Molecular Foundry’s Director, Omar Yaghi, then took the stage to discuss his groundbreaking work on metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which show great promise for natural gas storage and carbon gas capture. Yaghi articulated the vast opportunities available to scientists who want to help move MOF research forward and his hopes for collaboration between the Foundry and the ALS.

ALS staff updates included User Services group lead Sue Bailey, who introduced plans for a new ALS user portal and an updated registration and proposal system. David Robin, Division Deputy for Accelerator Operation and Development, reviewed planned accelerator, instrumentation, and controls upgrades and a new operational mode.

Pupa Gilbert of the University of Wisconsin discussed her work on mapping the amorphous-to-crystalline transitions in sea urchin biominerals using the PEEM microscope at Beamline 11.0.1. Steve Kevan, newly appointed Deputy Division Director for Science at the ALS, discussed his work on hidden symmetries in magnetic domains.

poster slamTwenty-one students from around the world then stepped up to present their research for the third annual student poster slam (at right). They were followed by Nate Lewis, Director of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) at Caltech, a program dedicated to the development of an artificial solar-fuel generation technology.  JCAP aims to find a cost-effective method to produce fuels using only sunlight, water, and carbon-dioxide as inputs.

At the poster competition (below) and reception that evening, students fielded questions about their work, with first prize going to Mahati Chintapalli of the Materials Science Department at UC Berkeley for her research on size-dependent dissociation of CO on cobalt nanocatalysts.

Tuesday morning began with award winners speaking about their work – first up was Shirley Award winner Carl Percival, an atmospheric chemist from the University of Manchester, whose team made the first direct measurements of the reaction rates of Criegee intermediates and thus showed that their impact on tropospheric chemistry and climate may be substantially greater than previously assumed. Student poster award winner Mahati Chintapalli also had a chance to present and field questions about her research.

Tuesday progressed with presentations by ALS users working in a variety of research areas. Berkeley Lab senior materials scientist Rob Ritchie talked about his research on the fracture behavior of human bone and ceramic composites using x-ray synchrotron microtomography. Wanli Yang, an ALS staff scientist working on battery research, spoke about using soft x-rays to probe electronic states key to battery performance. Andrew McElrone, an ALS user and Research Scientist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, spoke about his use of high-resolution computed tomography to gain a better understanding of a grapevine’s water transport system and reactions to drought pressure.

ALS staff scientist Eli Rotenberg rounded out Tuesday’s session with an entertaining and enlightening retrospective on the past 19 years of photoemission at Beamline 7. The beamline was retired recently and is currently undergoing a complete rebuild.

Tuesday’s awards dinner brought the ALS user community together to recognize some of their own distinguished accomplishments. The Klaus Halbach Award for Innovative Instrumentation went to Simon Morton and Jeff Dickert of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division for the invention and implementation of the Compact Variable Collimator, which has led to a dramatic increase in productivity in protein crystallography at the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology beamlines. The Tim Renner User Services Award for Outstanding Support to the ALS User Community was awarded to Tolek Tyliszczak, beamline scientist at the Molecular Environmental Sciences beamline, a leading national resource in the field of soft x-ray synchrotron radiation research. Descriptions of the awards and photos of the recipients are available on  the 2012 ALS User Meeting Awards Web page.

Thirteen workshops took up the remainder of the meeting; see the complete list of workshop speakers and agendas.

ESnet: It’s Everywhere You Want Your Data To Be Print


esnet logoAlthough it’s defined by DOE as a national user facility just as the ALS is, the Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) doesn’t quite fit the image of a centrally located facility serving a specific set of users. Rather, ESnet is a nationwide network that provides high-bandwidth, reliable connectivity linking tens of thousands of scientists at more than 40 DOE labs and facilities. The systems and services provided by ESnet staff advance research by helping scientists share their ideas, their data and their discoveries with collaborators and peers around the world.

Managed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), ESnet will soon take bandwidth to the next level as it rolls out the world’s first 100 gigabits per second (100 Gbps) network by the end of 2012. According to ESnet Director Greg Bell, the scientific data resulting from experiments at DOE’s particle accelerators, light sources and genome sequencing facilities are push the limits of ESnet’s current 10 Gbps network.

“We never want the network to be a gating function for scientific discovery,” Bell said.

According to ALS Scientist Dula Parkinson, a new fast camera installed at the hard x-ray tomography Beamline 8.3.2 at the ALS last year allows scientists to study a variety of structures as a function of time—from bones to rocks, and even metallic alloys—in unprecedented detail. The new camera produces data at a rate of 300 megabytes per second, which is 50 times faster than the one it replaced.

“Two years ago the hard x-ray tomography beamline at Berkeley Lab’s ALS generated about 100 gigabytes of data per week, but we got a faster camera and now we are generating anywhere from 2 to 5 terabytes of data per week,” says Parkinson. “This is pushing the limit of what our current infrastructure can handle.”

According to Parkinson, in the current system, a typical ALS user will create a folder on a data storage server connected to the instrument, and save their raw data to this folder. In many cases, users may do some initial processing on desktop computers at the ALS and save these files on the facility’s storage server. Upon leaving the facility, researchers will copy their data on an external hard drive and carry it home for further analysis. The files and raw data initially saved on the ALS storage server are typically left behind for the facility’s staff to manage. Keeping up with the torrent of data requires new methods for moving, storing, and analyzing data.

For the first step, ESnet staff helped Parkinson set up a data transfer node (tuned for optimal performance) and LBNL networking staff helped deploy a 10 Gigabits-per-second switch, giving Parkinson’s data a high-performance path through the LBNL network (LBLnet) to ESnet. This approach is an example of ESnet’s “Science DMZ” model, where data-intensive science applications are run on dedicated infrastructure configured for high performance.

ESnet carries the ALS data to DOE’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) in Oakland, where the data is stored, managed and shared with other researchers. To pave the way, NERSC staff helped Parkinson with his data acquisition and data transfer workflow. Future plans include tapping into NERSC’s supercomputing resources to improve data analysis.

“This is a success story for the ALS, for LBLnet, for ESnet and for NERSC,” said ESnet network engineer Eli Dart, who worked with Parkinson. “This is a working example of the science infrastructure needed to support a new generation of data-intensive science experiments at X-ray light sources, neutron sources, and free-electron lasers.”

ALS users interested in using the network for data-intensive workflows can contact ESnet at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or learn more at the October user meeting poster session.

User Office Update Print


Lots of changes have been happening in the ALS User Office over the last couple of months: users will find that a familiar face is gone and new ones are there to welcome them and help complete their registration.

Sharon Fujimura, who has worked in the ALS User Office since the start of ALS operations, retires at the end of June. Sharon manned the Reception Desk in the mezzanine and was renowned for her sense of humor and efficient user registration technique. Staff and users would like to thank Sharon for her dedication to supporting users over the years and  wish her a long and happy retirement.

deborah smith graduation

The User Office is happy to welcome Giselle Jiles, who began in early June as Sharon's replacement. Giselle was previously admissions director at St. Joseph's High School in the Bay area.

We are also very proud of Deborah Smith, supervisor of the User Office, who has recently graduated with a liberal arts associate degree from Berkeley City College, and who is progressing to her Bachelor's degree at JFK University.

Educational Outreach: From Superheroes to Synchrotrons Print


ALS Beamline Scientist Kate Jenkins recently spent an afternoon discussing the scientific vailidity of The Avengers with 16- and 17-year-old high school students. It was all in the name of promoting science as cool, relevant, and something to consider as a future career.

jenkins at albany high schoolJenkins visited with AP and college prep physics students at Albany High School as part of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) program “Day with an Engineer.” She talked about her educational path and her job as a materials scientist and then took questions from the teens, the most common one being: “Is what I saw in the movie The Avengers real?” Luckily, Jenkins had seen the movie and anticipated the question.

“I had printed out a screen shot of this thing from the movie called a tesseract, which is the ‘source of ultimate potential energy,’” says Jenkins. “In the movie they control the tesseract with a septapole magnet, so I was able to say ‘actually, I work on a machine that uses the same thing as the tesseract… and here’s what I do with it.’”

With the help of LBNL’s Center for Science and Engineering Education (CSEE), Jenkins also presented the students with a series of models that helped her explain magnetism and superconductivity. The students were suitably impressed with her superconducting magnetic levitation train and oxygen liquefying cone, Jenkins says. Following her visit with students, Kate received several letters from the students thanking her for her efforts and enthusiastically promising to keep up their studies in physics.

When she’s not acting as an ALS ambassador to local students, Jenkins can be found conducting magnetic spectroscopy and scattering research at Beamline 6.3.1 .

Corie Ralston: New Head of Berkeley Center for Structural Biology…and Award-Winning Writer Print

Corie Ralston’s appointment as Head of the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology (BCSB) has her busy looking at budgets, funding, and big-picture goals. The biophysicist staff scientist has been with BCSB for more than 10 years, so much of what she’s considering comes from an intimate familiarity with the day-to-day operations and challenges of the facility.

ralstonRalston joined BCSB, which runs five of the crystallography beamlines at the ALS, as a staff scientist in 2002 and took on the larger role of operations manager about five years ago.  While Ralston will definitely keep a hand in the crystallography research she’s been doing, her work balance will shift more toward user relations and funding development. Her new position entails managing a group of 12 employees and a budget of $3 million.

In her beamline research, Ralston studies chaperonin protein structures, which she describes as “the really important medics in our cells” that can fix mis-folded proteins. Since mis-folded proteins may cause many diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, a better understanding of chaperonins could lead to breakthrough drug developments. Ralston’s research is part of a collaboration with Stanford that was organized by former BCSB Head Paul Adams.

“The thing about keeping my hand in crystallography is that it gives me a sense of what’s needed at the beamlines,” says Ralston. “Especially because I work on a hard project – it’s not easy to crystallize; it’s not easy to solve; the data is always sub-optimal, so I have to have the best tools at the beamline.”

Beamline engineering developments are what keep Ralston’s crystallography work moving forward, and managing this process will be key to her new position as Head of BCSB. From software tools that advance data processing and collection to hardware tools like beamline optics and robotic controls, engineering development is what keeps the ALS crystallography beamlines at the forefront.

“It’s a challenge because whenever you’re doing something new that increases the flux of the beamline, you’re in danger of making it less stable,” says Ralston. “Maintaining this balance between stability and technological advancement is one of our biggest challenges.”

Besides maintaining existing BCSB funding – the majority of which comes from contracts with participating research teams (PRT), Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and an NIH grant – Ralston hopes to develop new funding sources by restructuring beamline contracts. She’d like to be able to offer smaller amounts of guaranteed beamtime to PRT users with smaller budgets, which is a more common situation in today’s economy. Ralston would then launch an aggressive PR campaign, travelling to present the new option to companies and academic institutions nationwide.

“I would really love BCSB to be the first thing someone thinks of when they need to solve a structure in order to move forward with their research,” says Ralston.


In Her Spare Time: Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

In addition to her new appointment at BCSB, Ralston has recently been recognized for her science fiction writing achievements, winning first prize in an international competition organized by the UK’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source. Her short story “The Sound of Science” follows a series of interactions between a beamline scientist and an alien as the scientist leads a group tour of a synchrotron. While the scientist begins the tour feeling frustrated with the inconvenience of taking time away from her work, her interactions with the curious alien lead her to some new realizations about science and our species’ interconnectedness.

“We all depend on each other for various areas of expertise,” Ralston muses. “I don’t really know how my car works and I can’t build a coffeemaker, but I can fix the beamline.”

The inspiration for her story came partly from Ralston’s personal experience at the ALS. “I do give a lot of tours and often I’m not initially enthusiastic about doing it, but then the people on my tours are so amazed by everything that it serves as a nice reminder of why I like this place so much,” says Ralston. “I thought to include an alien maybe because some of the people on my tour seem alien to me.”

Ralston has been writing science fiction since she was a teenager, becoming serious about her pursuit about 10 years ago. She now has more than a dozen published stories at the professional level. She recently finished a draft of her first novel, which is set in post-apocalyptic Bay Area.


Read Corie's winning entry "The Sound of Silence" and see her describing her work on Beamline Highlight 8.3.2: Structural Biology.

View the PBD announcement of her appointment here.

Two ALS Users Selected for DOE Research Award Print

Berkeley Lab Scientists Kevin Wilson and Oliver Gessner have been selected from a nationwide pool of more than 800 applicants to receive research awards from the DOE’s Early Career Research Program. Wilson and Gessner join 66 other U.S. university- and laboratory-based researchers who were selected for the five-year awards.

Overseen by the DOE’s Office of Science, the Early Career Research Program provides crucial financial support to top researchers in their formative career stages. With these awards, the DOE specifically targeted research areas that are high priority to the department and the nation as a whole.

wilsonWilson, Beamline Scientist on the Chemical Dynamics Beamline 9.0.2, plans to focus his Early Career research on the fate of hydrocarbons in the environment. His research will use new experimental techniques to look at how hydrocarbons at the liquid-water interface react with gas-phase free radicals. “It was my beamline work here at the ALS that led to some of these questions about how chemical reactions occur on the surface of organic aerosol particles,” says Wilson.


Gessner, also associated with the Chemical Sciences Division, will concentrate his Early Career research on gessnermolecular electronic function. Gessner’s work will use intense, ultrashort x-ray pulses to monitor the light‐induced creation and transport of charges in complex molecular systems. Some important proof-of-principle work that went into Gessner’s proposal was conducted at the ALS, exploring the unique capabilities of the light source in combination with pulsed optical lasers. “There’s so much expertise here in the fields of x-ray spectrometry and the physics of condensed phase systems,” says Gessner. “Our work at the ALS provided a great base to build on as I crafted my proposal.”

The awards serve as a rare opportunity for both scientists to delve deeper into their work and craft well-rounded research programs. “It’s a rare opportunity to really focus on a single problem and to put together a scientific program around it,” says Wilson.

“This early career award will allow me to grow this work into an actual program,” says Gessner. “It’s very gratifying to see the DOE acknowledging our work in this manner.”

A list of Early Career Research Program selectees, their institutions, and abstracts of their research projects is available at


The Sound of Science Print

Diamond Light Source, the UK national synchrotron facility, hosted a short story competition to introduce Diamond to a wider audience. The competition, Light Reading, invited submission of up to 3,000 words. Stories had to be inspired by, or take place at, Diamond


Ralston had this to say about her story: "The story idea came out of a recent  tour I gave at the Advanced Light Source, where I work. I started out feeling irritated that the tour was taking valuable time out of my day. By the end of it, though, the obvious enthusiasm of the group and their endless questions had made me see the synchrotron through their eyes-- as a truly extraordinary place where the progress of science is nearly tangible. Also, I love science fiction, so it seemed natural to put an alien in the story."


Ralston's story won first place. Judges had this to say: “This was a humane, witty and spellbinding entry, well deserving of the top spot. The writing is spare and straightforward, which rendered the interaction between a sickly, aged, mucus-coated alien and an overworked Diamond researcher strangely credible. There is an art to conveying just the right amount of information in a science-themed piece of fiction – not so little that the reader is lost, but not so much that the reader feels forcefed and unable to use her imagination. This writer has got the balancing act about right.”




The Sound of Science

By Corie Ralston


"And from here you can see the true size of the synchrotron," I say, pointing along the arc of the experimental hall. This part of the tour never fails to impress people, and I'm always a bit awed myself. "The x-rays that come off that ring are a billion time brighter than the sun and we use them to—"

"Excuse me."

I look at my tour group to see who has spoken, and find the Slug staring back at me with its three sets of protruding eyes. The rest of the tour, a middle school class from Oxford, is standing a discreet few feet away, which isn't surprising.  The aliens have a peculiar odor; petrol and over-cooked fish are the kindest descriptions I've heard. Plus, they leave a trail of mucus wherever they go.

The term 'Slug' isn’t the nicest name for our alien visitors, but it fits. The alien's lumpy, mucus-coated body sits in unpleasant contrast to the clean lines of the experimental hall. It stands on a Segway, and two tentacles grasp the handles in a parody of human hands. A viscous puddle has formed on the footstand.

"Do you study nucleic acid?" it says, its voice coming from somewhere under the eyestalks. "Here at Diamond Light Source?"

"Yes, we do. We have several structural biology beamlines, where we use x-ray diffraction to get the atomic structure of both proteins and nucleic acids—"

"What about three-strand DNA?"

I try to suppress my irritation. I'm doing this tour as a favor to a colleague, who is away at a conference. I should really be preparing for my own conference, plus I've got two papers that need editing and a fast-approaching grant deadline. Certainly the aliens already know everything they need to know about their three-stranded DNA.

"We haven’t used these beamlines to study three-stranded DNA or its associated proteins," I say. " Your proteins are difficult to isolate and impossible to grow up in our usual cell lines. But surely you know that."

"Triple is best," the alien says. "Far superior to double DNA. Triple interactions and a hundred times the amino acids."

"A hundred more things that can go wrong," I say. "A hundred times the difficulty in replication and expression and repair of DNA."

The Slug ignores me and goes on about the superiority of three-stranded DNA. I try to arrange my face in a semblance of patience. They are to be treated as honored guests, after all. But it's hard to imagine that the synchrotron offers any technology they haven't already developed themselves, with their light-speed ships and translator nanobots that allow them to talk in any human language. Why they are visiting earth at all is a mystery to me. Yet here they are, touring castles and historic villages, museums and zoos. And synchrotrons, like the Diamond Light Source.

Finally, the alien winds down. The cilia on its torso twitch, and its eyestalks undulate restlessly.

I want to argue. I want to ask why they feel the need to come here and tell us they are better than us. But instead, I go on with the tour. "All these beamlines are housed in the same building. " I lift a hand to indicate the huge span of the hall, the circular wall that goes off into the distance.  "And this makes for great acoustics. Let's just stop and listen for a moment."

From where we stand, we can hear the hum of computers, the swish and click of pumps and electronics, and underneath it all, the rise and fall of conversations from the scientists and engineers who work the floor. "Hear that?" I say. "It's the sound of discovery." This always gets them.

"You have all these techniques," the alien voice grates from behind me. "Why are you not studying triple DNA?"

I turn. I know I should do my best and just answer the question. I really do know that.

"We are not studying triple DNA here. I am not studying it because I do not have grant money to study it. And you know why? Because it would take years to figure out how to make our cell lines incorporate your superior triple DNA and produce your superior proteins. And years to figure out how to crystallize it. And I don't see any of you arrogant triple DNA slugs offering to help!"

I realize suddenly that everyone is staring at me. Two middle-schoolers who were previously fighting over a notebook have stopped to gape at my outburst. The adult chaperones look disapproving.

The alien doesn't respond, and if three pairs of eyes on stalks can manage to look hurt, somehow they do.

I represent science, I remind myself. I represent all scientists at the Diamond Light Source.

"Ah, sorry," I say. "Let's move on, shall we?"

The alien is quiet after that. It tags along behind the rest of the tour. I feel reproach in the whir of the Segway wheels against the polished floor. I almost wish it would start talking about its DNA again.




Three days later I am sitting in the atrium enjoying a moment of quiet and a cup of coffee when I suddenly smell petrol.

I look up to see an alien approaching me on a Segway. They all look alike to me, but I have a feeling this is the same one that was on my tour. It confirms my suspicion when it says, "I understand that slugs are considered disgusting by your people."

"It was unkind to call you a slug," I say. "I'm sorry."

Its eyestalks make circular patterns in the air, a sign of embarrassment. I know that now because I've been doing some reading about the aliens.

It's a beautiful day, with sunlight streaming through the high windows to light the atrium in soft whites. The alien's skin gleams wetly in the light. I wonder if it hates the dry air here.

"I enjoyed your tour," it says.

"Thank you."

"I understand I interrupt too much."

"That's okay."

I sip my coffee, wondering how I can get out of the conversation. The grant application awaits. And one of the beamlines is down because of a problem with an ion pump. I have to reschedule a whole week of users.

"I'm curious," I say. "Why have you traveled all those light years to see the museums of earth? How could they possibly be that interesting to you?"

"What we have not seen is interesting. What we have seen seems ordinary."

"Very profound." I immediately regret my sarcasm, but to my surprise the alien wiggles the fringes of cilia circling its eyestalks: its own form of laughter.

In spite of myself, I smile.

"And to reach for knowledge outside oneself -- that is extraordinary."

That's something my father would have said. He was always reading about new technology and new science. He loved tours. He would have loved to meet the aliens. He would have followed them around, peppering them with questions.

I wait, but the alien doesn't say more. Perhaps it is feeling awkward. Maybe it doesn't know what to say to me, either.

"Listen," I say. "I'm heading down to troubleshoot one of the beamlines. Do you want to come along?"

"Yes, please."

I walk next to the alien, the wheels of its Segway squeaking a little, and I badge us through onto the experimental floor. I've been studying pictures of our visitors, and I think I can now distinguish some of the machines it carries. The recording devices are slight bumps under its skin, embedded at regular intervals along its torso. Its breathing apparatus is a series of translucent veils that cover its skin in patches, fluttering up as we move along. I know they wear a thin film of material to keep their skin moist. Maybe on their home world they don't leak mucus all the time.

"How do you travel on your home world?" I say. "Surely you don't have Segways?"

"Where we live is much like one of your swamps. We half-swim, I think you would say."

We stop at the broken beamline, and I lead the alien back along the beampipe to a cluster of pumps and racks of electronics. It has to abandon its Segway along the way, and I try not to look at the trail its footpad leaves on the floor. I'll have to apologize to the cleaning staff later.

Now that I'm here, I'm wishing I hadn't invited the alien down. I'll tell it a little more about the beamline, then try to politely suggest it go tour something else. Maybe I can palm it off on one of my colleagues in the molecular biology lab.

"Here," the alien says. It extends a gray tentacle to one of the bellows connecting one section of pipe to an optics tank.

"Here what?" I say.

"A small leak. I plug it." It retrieves its arm back into its torso. A glistening pellet covers the place on the bellows that it touched. I look at the ion gauge, see that the pressure has started to drop. So the pump wasn't broken after all.

"How did you know there was a leak there?" I say.

"We have very sensitive recording equipment. We record not just sight and sound, but pressure and smell and other characteristics of the environment."

"But how does it work?"

"I cannot say," it says.

"Of course."

Maybe I haven't kept the disappointment out of my voice, because its eye stalks start to wave, and it says, "I do not mean to be disrespectful. Let me ask. Do you have an automobile?"


"Do you understand its operation?"

"Well, basically. It uses gasoline to fire pistons, which then, er, well, turn something, a crank of some sort… in the engine." I stare back at the alien for a moment. "I see your point."

"I am not the inventor of these sensing devices, or of the ships we travel in."

"Okay. But surely some of you understand the technology."

"It was given to us."

"Was it another race that gave you the technology?" I say. I imagine a universe filled with omniscient alien races, the vast knowledge they must possess. Maybe they've even unraveled the secrets of the birth of the universe itself—

"No," the alien says.


"My people invented the ships, and the rest of our technology. But only some know how to build and maintain and fix."

"Only some of you, as in, not any of you that have come here?" I think I'm beginning to understand what the aliens are doing here.

"We wanted to travel, to see the universe. Like you travel in a car. We travel in a ship."

I study the alien for a moment, wondering exactly how much recording equipment it wears. "You're tourists," I say.

"Yes. We contribute for many years for the betterment of our race. Now we are free to travel and explore."

"You're retired tourists."


"That explains a lot," I say.

"Many wish to see what they haven't seen before. And many hope to find cures for all that kills us."

"Well, many of us hope that, too. That's what the work here is all about."

"No, you don't understand. We are retired because we are sick."

I study the alien some more.

"Only the sick are free to travel," it says.

"So sick that you can't work?"

"So sick that we will die soon, and we would like to spend the last of our days touring."

"But you must have ways to study your physiology. You must have the equivalent of synchrotrons on your home planet, and medicines and technology--" I trail off. To someone who lived a hundred years ago on earth, the technology today would seem miraculous. Yet we still have not cured cancer, or a myriad of other diseases.

"A hundred times the things that can go wrong," the alien says. Its eyes move up and down, a smile. "As you say."

They are advanced in metallurgy and mechanics. Not advanced enough in the biology of themselves. Not unlike us.

"All creatures die," I say.

"Just so."

Its breathing veils move up and down in the air currents, and every now and then tiny rainbows shimmer to life on the surfaces. I hadn't noticed that before.

My father died of lung cancer just five years ago, right before the aliens arrived. I would love to find a cure for cancer, too.

I start to think about ways that we could grow up cells that would incorporate triple-stranded DNA. It would take a lot of work. There are no preliminary experiments to put into the grant application. Yet their physiological building blocks are amino acids and nucleic acids. They harness oxygen for energy. They have cells and organs and circulatory systems and eyeballs. In some ways, they really aren't so different from us.

I stand there with the alien, listening to the rhythmic clang of pumps, the hiss of pneumatics and the whir of motors.

"Maybe I can look into that triple DNA system of yours," I say.

It's too late for these aliens, the current visitors. But we could help the ones that come next. And studying their nucleic makeup would certainly tell us something about our own. Maybe reaching outside ourselves is exactly what we need to do. Maybe that is the extraordinary that science is all about.

Twelve Superlatve User Weeks Print

September 28, 2011

Twice this month, the ALS achieved a 12-week running average reliability of over 99%--something without precedent according to Dave Richardson. The most recent 12-week running average for MTBF was above 78.5 hours, and the MTTR was 38 minutes. See charts below for detailed information. Congratulations to all who helped achieve these successes!


<< Start < Prev 1 2 3 4 5 Next > End >>

Page 4 of 5