Today at Berkeley Lab

Marcus Hertlein – Burning up the Clock

By Sabin Russell

Coming home from a long day of work as a synchrotron-laser X-ray beam physicist, Berkeley Lab’s Marcus Hertlein has a choice: practice shooting a few basketball hoops from his unicycle, or put in some more hours building The World’s Largest Clock.

These days, Marc is opting for the clock.

On August 29, he’ll be part of a team of artists and scientists that will activate a giant, surrealistic timepiece at the geographic center of Burning Man, the weeklong festival of idiosyncratic art, self-expression, and communion that draws 50,000 people every year to a remote patch of Nevada desert called Black Rock, three hours north of Reno. They call themselves Burners, and Marc himself has been a Burner for seven years.

“There are amazing artists, amazing concepts, and amazing interactions between people,” he says.

In previous years, Marc helped to build other art installations at Burning Man. The One Mile Clock Project, or “Burning Time,” is his most ambitious to date, and his first using lasers. He is part of a team of 70 working at the direction of Jim Bowers, the Auburn-based multi-media artist who dreamed up the idea, and raised $10,000 to make it happen.

From the top of a 45-foot clock tower, green laser beams like the hands of a clock will track the hours, minutes, and seconds, shooting horizontally miles into the dust and darkness of the Nevada night. This clock is big. The beams will travel well-beyond the 9.5 mile circumference of Black Rock City, the vast encampment that stretches out from the center in a series of concentric rings. The green laser sweep hand will have to move around the camp perimeter at 550 feet per second. The minute hand will be visible moving at nine feet per second. Twelve wooden obelisks marking each hour will be placed at the inner ring of the encampments. Most of the volunteers working on the clock project are festooning the obelisks with their own art.

Marc is building the mechanical contraption at the core of it all: a box in the tower with three 1-watt YAG lasers and synchronized rotating mirrors. It will keep time, sundown to sunrise, until the Burners decamp on Labor Day. “I’m responsible for it,’’ he says, with just the slightest hint of panic in his eyes. “I have to design and build it, and make it work.”

Something more is at stake than merely keeping time. Word is that this clock could make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. “Largest timepiece. A new category,” says Marc.

The biggest challenge is not the mechanics of the clockworks, but building something that can withstand the extreme conditions of Black Rock: Clouds of caustic dust, windstorms, relentless heat, arctic nights, even the odd rainstorm.

“I like to keep the stress and the fun going, outside of work,” he says.

At Berkeley Lab, where he has worked for 10 years, Marc lives in a world of femtoseconds – one quadrillionth of a second. His day job at the Advanced Light Source is running ultra-fast X-ray pump-probe experiments of gases, liquids, solids, and plasma on beamline 6.0. As much as he loves the job, Marc savors his playtime too. He learned to ride a unicycle as a grad student at the University of Michigan, and now takes a one-wheeler on rugged trails — yes, a mountain unicycle. Then there is unicycle basketball. Last year a team he founded, the Berkeley Revolution, was the U.S. National Champion and placed second at the 15th International Unicycling Convention and Championships held in Wellington, New Zealand.

“You live in Berkeley, you’ve got to do something unusual,” Marc says.