Underground between Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg-Bahrenfeld in Germany, scientists and engineers have built a huge X-ray laser instrument, called European XFEL, that costs twice as much as Hamburg’s new concert hall. Hasse told his readers what the physicists are up to in their backyard and how they try to illuminate the interior of matter and record films of atoms. When atoms come together during chemical processes to form molecules, he writes, the process happens “about a billion times faster than the wing beat of a hummingbird.” With extremely short and intense flashes of light, the device can provide, among other things, shots of chemical reactions at the atomic level, three-dimensional images of important proteins and the start of protein folding. Wrongly folded proteins can form clumps thought to contribute to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The “molecular cinema,” as some researchers call it, is designed to give a computer-aided reconstruction of reality, atom by atom. Hasse described how the powerful X-ray laser flashes are produced when free electrons “slalom” through a series of magnets in the 1.7-kilometer long particle accelerator of the XFEL. While the scientists were preparing for experiments underground, which began in 2018, not everyone on the surface was happy. There were some ground collapses during the tunneling for the machine and some structural damage to houses. Some homeowners had to fight for years for compensation. Judge Nancy Shute, editor in chief of Science News, called Hasse’s piece “a good description of a physics experiment and the oddness of fitting this in amidst modern German life.” Hasse said: “Reporting science at a local newspaper can be a special challenge. Receiving this renowned award is a great incentive for me and an encouragement to do even better.”

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