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What Shall We Do With the X-ray Laser?

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Science  10 Dec 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6010, pp. 1470-1471
DOI: 10.1126/science.330.6010.1470

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A year and a half ago, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory fired up the world's first hard x-ray laser. Shining 10 billion times as bright as any previous x-ray source, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) would probe matter in new ways: simulating conditions within a planet's core, resolving the ultrafast changes in a material's atomic-scale architecture, and determining the structure of a protein from individual molecules. Or so claimed the machine's designers. Some potential users questioned whether the $420 million LCLS would live up to its billing. Now scientists have results from the first experiments with the machine, which they discussed at a recent meeting here. Although it's too soon to say that the LCLS will succeed at every task—three of six experimental "end stations" are not yet finished—the x-ray laser has already produced novel conditions of matter and demonstrated unprecedented capabilities. If anything, it appears to be more reliable, versatile, and fruitful than expected.