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Brookhaven National Lab celebrates seven decades of research

It’s also 100 years since Camp Upton opened at the laboratory site, where thousands of soldiers trained during World War I.

Brookhaven National Laboratory celebrated its 70th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of Camp Upton, the World War I-era military training facility, on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.  (Credit: Newsday / Tom Ferrara)

Brookhaven National Laboratory this year is celebrating a dual anniversary that honors its role as a world-class science institution — and as the former Army camp that inspired “God Bless America.”

The lab, which occupies 5,265 mostly wooded acres in Upton, was founded 70 years ago, as the United States expanded scientific research following World War II.

This year also marks 100 years since Camp Upton — where thousands of soldiers trained for service in World War I — opened at the site.

The lab retains elements of both phases of its history: Amid displays of retired equipment such as early particle accelerators, lab staff have found dog tags left by soldiers a century ago. Trenches used to train those soldiers for combat still exist in wooded areas.

About 3,000 scientists, technicians and support staff work at the laboratory full time. An additional 4,000 scientists visit annually to use technologies such as the lab’s relativistic heavy ion collider, a 2.4-mile loop in which gold ions collide so that researchers can study the origins of the universe and other phenomena.

The lab also features the National Synchrotron Light Source II, which produces the world’s most intense light for advanced imaging research.

“A lot of what we do is basic science, and we don’t know where it’s going to lead us,” said Tim Green, the lab’s environmental compliance manager and unofficial historian. “But we don’t know if we don’t look at it.”

Projects and scientists associated with Brookhaven have won seven Nobel Prizes.

The property is open for public tours once a week during the summer, but visitors require security passes. School groups often visit for special programs.

The site is one of the United States’ last remnants of World War I training camps, said Suzanne Johnson of Rocky Point, who recently co-authored a history of Camp Upton as part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” book series.

At any given time during the war, 40,000 soldiers trained at the then-19,000-acre camp in the middle of Suffolk County, at the time a sparsely populated agricultural area, said Johnson, former director of Longwood Public Library in Middle Island.

“The population of the camp doubled the population of Suffolk County,” Johnson said.

A small plaque honors its most famous Army trainee: Sgt. Irving Berlin of Brooklyn, who spent part of his time in Upton writing a musical called “Yip, Yip, Yaphank.” He wrote the song “God Bless America” for that show.

A century later, Green said, the lab’s staff continues research that could lead to improved forms of energy production, and perhaps unlock the secrets of the universe.

“The science that is being done here is just really incredible,” Green said. “What we’re going to learn from that is going to take us into the future.”

A century of service

History of Camp Upton and Brookhaven National Lab

  • July 18, 1917: Camp Upton established. Thousands of Army trainees stationed there during World War I.
  • 1920s: Efforts to sell vacant property fail.
  • 1930s: Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps plants thousands of trees on the site.
  • World War II: Property used as military induction center, rehab facility and prisoner of war camp.
  • March 21, 1947: Site transferred from War Department to federal Atomic Energy Commission for scientific research.
  • 1958: “Tennis for Two,” an early video game, is developed to entertain visitors.
  • 1970s: Lab ownership transferred to U.S. Department of Energy.

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