Some of the most important research in the world — and we’re not exaggerating here — quietly takes place just down the road at the Jefferson Lab in Newport News. It’s officially known as the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. The accelerator produces a stream of charged electrons that allow scientists to probe the nucleus of the atom. Research doesn’t get much more basic than that.
By helping us to better understand the fundamental building blocks of, well, everything, and the forces that bind them, Jefferson Lab not only enriches human knowledge, it also lays the foundation for practical advancements, such as proton therapy for cancer or computed tomography for medical imaging. The Virginia facility is a world leader in investigating the quark structure of the nucleus. (Look it up — it will be good for you. And fun.)
Jefferson Lab, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, with assistance from Newport News and the Commonwealth of Virginia, just completed a $338 million upgrade that, according to Physics World magazine, will help scientists explore even smaller aspects of the tiniest elements in the universe: David Ireland, head of nuclear physics at the University of Glasgow, who regularly uses the facility, told the magazine that the lab’s upgrade “will now allow us to look at scales smaller than the proton and in a lot further detail.” Nuclear physicist Daniel Watts from Edinburgh University, another regular user of the facility, said the completion of the upgrade “is a big milestone for the international nuclear-physics community.”
The upgrade was a wise investment by all involved. Virginia can be quite proud of its nuclear ambitions, and the very smart people who fuel them.