FOR three days this month, one of the most expensive machines in the United States was at the service of 58 high school students from all over the country and around the world. The students are part of the Department of Energy's High School Science Honors Program. Now in its fourth year, the program enables six similar groups to spend two weeks at a national laboratory learning about scientific research.
Here at Brookhaven National Laboratory, the students' experiments centered on the laboratory's showpiece: the National Synchrotron Light Source.
``Synchrotron light is the most powerful source of light,'' says Laura E. Grego, an honors program student from Michigan. The NSLS is one of the most intense sources of X-rays and ultraviolet light in the country (see story below).
Dozens of experiments cluster around the synchrotron's two main rings. Some are aimed at learning how to use X-rays ``to make really small microchips for computers,'' Laura explains. Others are using the energy to study chemical catalysts, chemical and biological reactions, and the structure of proteins.
``X-ray diffraction has been around for years,'' says Peter Williams from Louisiana. ``But a lot of samples that chemists and biologists are coming up with now are too small to use those techniques. Since this [the NSLS] has such a large flux - a large number of photons per area per second - you can analyze samples that you couldn't previously.''
Nearly every minute of the students' two-week stay at Brookhaven's 5,265-acre campus was scheduled and accounted for. They started at the end of July with a series of lectures on topics ranging from safety and the workings of the synchrotron to arms control. Then, after a one-day tour of New York City, they began three days of intensive use of the NSLS.
``They do several experiments at the Light Source,'' says Donald J. Metz, who heads the laboratory's office of educational programs. ``A couple of them will be part of ongoing research. However, their contribution will be as very intimate observers. They will get a set of data - they may get to turn a few knobs - but to say they are actually doing research would be misleading.
``With that data, they have to write up a report. It's a team effort,'' he adds. The three reports each student writes will be published for the group, and a copy will be given to the governor of each student's state.
The students' enthusiasm is contagious, straight up to the highest levels of the Department of Energy: ``The High School Honors Program is one of the ways that the DOE is sharing the resources of our national laboratories with the scientists of the future - the youth,'' says John Herrington, secretary of the Department of Energy.
The program started in 1985 at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. ``I have expanded the program from one laboratory to six laboratories because it is so successful,'' Mr. Herrington says. ``I am most impressed by the caliber of the youth I have met. Our nation's future depends on the initiative and hard work of these and similar students.''
Other laboratories in the program include the Argonne National Laboratory and the Fermi National Accelerator, both in Illinois, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, both in California, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
The program at each laboratory had a different emphasis. At Livermore, for example, students learned how supercomputers can be used to solve extremely complex problems.
``During high school, I derived a theorem on integral Pythagorean triples,'' says Sharon Kineke from Rhode Island, who returned from Livermore in July.
Sharon wrote a program, using her theorem, on her own computer to find such triples. Then she ran it on Livermore's supercomputer. ``It was generating numbers starting with 1 million and faster than a PC could do 100. It was quite amazing,'' she says.
Although students were officially selected by their state's governors, various techniques were actually used. Some students had to fill out applications that were reviewed by committees. Others received their scholarships as prizes for science fairs or mathematics competitions. ``My school just told me I was going,'' says Sean Cummings from Mississippi.
The Department of Energy paid all of the students' expenses, including transportation, housing, meals, and supplies. The total program cost was $650,000, according to a department spokesman.
``I think it's really cool to come right out of high school and work with people who are doing research on the cutting edge,'' says Laura Grego.
In addition to all the science, many of the students say that getting the chance to meet their peers from all over the country and see New York City was worth the trip. Katrina N. Smith, from Alaska, saw mussels, lobster, and shrimp for the first time at a picnic the first weekend. ``It tastes good but it's really slimy,'' she said after trying her first cherrystone clam. Katrina will be a senior this fall at the East High School in Anchorage.
Besides each state, there were students at Brookhaven from Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, France, Italy, Japan, West Germany, Mexico, and Canada. ``It's an opportunity that I couldn't get otherwise by any other means, to be here, to see the workings of the lab, to talk with the people, and to use these machines,'' says Marco Antonio Gonz'alez Gal'icia of Mexico City.
Because the honors program is only four years old, it is too early to know what impact it will have in the long run, Metz says.
But scientists at Brookhaven are optimistic: ``I think it's a good idea,'' says Peter Johnson, who runs an experiment on the Light Source. ``It exposes these guys to front-line science. Maybe some of them will stick.''