It’s July 12, 2017, and Jens Dopke walks into a windowless room in Oxfordshire, England, all of his attention trained on a small, white frame that he carries with both hands. The space, which looks like a futuristic engine room, is crowded with sleek metal tables, switches and platforms topped with tubes and boxes. A tangle of pipes and wires covers the walls and floor like vines.
In the middle of the room, Dopke, a physicist, eases the frame into a holder mounted on a metal turntable, a red laser playing on the back of his hand. Then he uses his cellphone to call his colleague Michael Drakopoulos, who is sitting in a control room a few yards away. “Give it another half a millimeter,” Dopke says. Working together, they adjust the turntable so that the laser aligns perfectly with a dark, charred speck at the center of the frame.
Dozens of similar rooms, or “hutches,” are arrayed around this huge, doughnut-shaped building, a type of particle accelerator called a synchrotron. It propels electrons to near light speed around its 500-meter-long ring, bending them with magnets so they emit light. The resulting radiation is focused into intense beams, in this case high-energy X-rays, which travel through each hutch. That red laser shows the path the beam will take. A thick lead shutter, attached to the wall, is all that stands between Dopke and a blast of photons ten billion times brighter than the Sun.
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