UPTON, N.Y.—In the middle of Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton, Long Island, is a building whose gleaming white curves, bay windows, and identifying sign on the front lawn cause it to stand out from the barracks architecture prevailing at the rest of the site. The building is the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS), and the composition of the scientists who work in its intenor is as unusual as the exterior. Scientists from AT&T Bell Laboratories examining the surface structure of semiconductors are camped next to a team from Stanford, Cornell, Stony Brook, and Brookhaven doing coronary angiography. Catalysis experts from Exxon Corp. are adjacent to Brookhaven’s protein crystallographers. Harvard chemists work side by side with Yale solid-state physicists.

These strange bedfellows have been thrown together by synchrotron radiation, a phenomenon whose range of application is so vast that it has forced scientists into collaborations that cut across not only disciplinary...

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