Thanks to Facebook, I was able to see the the accelerator at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. My best friend from high school, known as Big Dave, found out from my Facebook status that I was in California. It turned out that he lives close to my uncle in Oakland, where I was staying.
I visited his home and met his lovely wife and kids. A few days later, he invited me to visit his workplace, the Advanced Light Source at the Lawrence Laboratory in Berkeley, where he runs the particle accelerator. Don't ask me what that means, exactly. All I know is that this one is the world's most intense source of soft x-rays, which are used for advanced scientific research.
Big Dave explained as best he could in layman's terms. As I understood, they strip electrons from some unfortunate material and accelerate them through a gigantic electron racetrack to nearly the speed of light. The electrons spin off intense light, which they beam at tiny objects such as stardust or viruses or molecules of drugs. The beams exit along the way and bounce off these targets, capturing, somehow, extremely detailed data. Incredibly, up to 40 experiments can be conducted at the same time. Four Nobel prizes havebeen awarded from research conducted at the lab.
The lab was founded by Ernest Lawrence. I don't know if he is related to me, but it is a question worth exploring, if nothing more than getting my kids dates with smart people in the Bay Area when they're older (much older).
It's hard for me to imagine how my pal in high school could grow up and be in charge of something so important. I remember him as a guy who couldn't be trusted with a cup of coffee, and now he's in charge of a particle accelerator worth gazillions of dollars and of critical importance to science. But it's great to see how happy he is with his life, both at work and at home. Not many of us are as lucky.
The only down side to the day was that I had to walk in his shoes. Literally. You have to wear covered shoes and long pants to enter the lab, and I was only wearing flip-flops. So I borrowed his shoes, which were too big. I flopped around this amazing place like a big-footed clown, but it was all worth it. This is a place where real science happens, where incredibly bright people put their hearts into their work.
I am so lucky to have friends like these.