Jay Brandes writes:
Dear Readers: I am spending this week conducting research at the National Synchrotron Light Source up in Brookhaven, New York. Now you might ask, “Why do you need to go to New York?”. The answer has to do with a very special instrument I am using, called a soft x-ray microscope. Everyone is familiar with x-rays in the Doctor’s or Dentist’s office. Those x-rays are high energy and go right through your body, being absorbed a bit more by bones and teeth. The kind of x-rays that I am using are called “soft” x-rays, and they wouldn’t pass through a sheet of paper. Comparing the two is sort of like the comparing ultraviolet light (hard) and infrared light (soft). So what good are they? Well, soft x-rays interact with matter in interesting ways. The microscope I use has the ability to use these x-rays to give me information on incredibly tiny scales, about 50 nanometers or 50 billionths of a meter. For comparison a red blood cell is 100 times as big. The information I get is in the form of maps of different matter types at this resolution. So I can, with this instrument, literally look inside of a cell and see what is going on, where everything is located and, more importantly, what each structure is made of.
The facility I am using is one of only a handful in the country that can do this kind of analysis. These microscopes depend on a powerful source of x-ray light, generated by a “synchrotron”. A synchrotron is a beam of electrons whizzing around in a big metal tube. As these electrons go by my instrument, a device makes them wiggle a little bit, and this wiggle produces intense X-ray radiation. These x-rays are a million times brighter than those produced in your doctor’s office! These X-rays travel away from the synchrotron and to my microscope. So in one sense this big, multi-hundred million dollar facility is just a big light bulb for my instrument (as well as dozens of others around the synchrotron).
There is lots of interesting science done at these facilities, including a great deal of medical research. Many of the structures of proteins in diseases and in normal cells have been determined here by x-ray crystallography. I can’t do justice to all of this research, but please check out the NSLS web page for more details.