I don’t know what I had expected. A plane ticket to Fermi in northeastern Illinois? A plane ticket to Switzerland to see the LHC?
I’ve written this post before tonight in four different ways, and the one thing they all had in common was coming back down to reality, and learning to be happy with just “real life” in my own backyard. The MSU Cyclotron Building:
And there were some pretty interesting things to see after all. Come, take the tour with me:
I found the building, but couldn’t find a place to park, nor any signs telling me where to enter. I drove slowly around the building a couple times, finally zig zagging into a place where I probably shouldn’t have been since my radio suddenly blasted out extremely loud static. I took that as a “No Parking” and drove out of there.
Then, once parked, I had to ask at an information booth how to get into the building….
. . . and they told me to follow the footprints.” Aw, geeee. I had come for some adult physics.
First we had to sit down and listen to the rules. There weren’t too many, but the most memorable rule was “Whatever you do, DON’T ever press a red button!” The young man said there were many red buttons all over, on doors, in halls, on tables, everywhere! And they weren’t protected from curious fingers.
(There were several children on this tour, and on this point I identified with every one of them. The most compelling question as we moved around was “What does that red button do? How could I find out? What would happen if…” Oh, yes, I understood how it feels to be told not to do something – with no explanation why.)
And this is also where I had my first MAJOR disappointment. We were told that we could not actually SEE the cyclotrons because … they… were … ON. They were in use. And we were told “You wouldn’t want to be near one when it’s in use. (Oh, yeah?)
(I’m still settling down after that bit of news.)
So here is where we began our tour. I can at least show you what I saw:
Keep in mind, I was usually in motion, usually falling behind because I was taking a lot of photos. If he ever took a head count, he’d usually be one less. Me. (I was looking at all the red buttons.)
Signs you don’t see every day. “No radioactive material beyond this point.” And apparently we humans in the tour were no threat, we could go past “this point.”
The building was very large with a maze of hallways, doors opening to rooms of all sizes with unrecognizable equipment and unintelligible instructions. The entire building was noisy with vacuum pumps, motors running, fans, and many other loud unidentifiable noises. And somewhere up there, the young man’s voice . . .
Our guide did his best to explain what this mess of tubes and wires were for.
Another tangle of wires. Well, probably a pretty expensive and important tangle of wires:
Here is a work station that I thought was interesting. Young physicists have open notebooks, charts, pencils, and little things on the table that they’re using. A physicist at work:
I wandered down a hallway and peeked into an open area: Saw something very, very cold: And then an ironic sign: “Pure water Don’t Drink” —
If the water’s pure — then don’t drink it!
The important work going on here on this particular campus is the smashing of nuclei. A nucleus is at the center of an atom, as in this cartoon diagram:
A smaller particle, often an electron, is speeded up with the use of a rapidly alternating electrical current set perpendicular to a very strong magnetic field. The high speed particle is then suddenly redirected into somebody’s atom, say a carbon atom with 6 protons and 6 neutrons — or 6 reds and 6 blues in that diagram.
Here is a photograph of the resulting smash-up.
An “atom smasher” – right? Then they see what other element has resulted and then study all that.
Here is an important sign:
Our guide told us that he has to treat us as though we all have Pacemakers because there are areas of very serious strong magnetism. Even though the magnetic fields were behind heavily reinforced doors, there was still that Blue Light to warn you away, in the upper left there:
(Don’t touch red buttons. Don’t go near blue lights . . . .)
Now here is something interesting. The young man was explaining to us what this equipment was used for, when all of a sudden he stopped and did a genuine double-take. He said, “I was just here an hour ago and that wasn’t like that.” Fortunately he kept talking to himself so we could hear what he was thinking.
See those three blue circles with silver bolts in the middle? There is supposed to be a fourth one at the top, but it looks white. It was being covered in a thick layer of frost! As he pointed out the “steam,” (that blurry blue area) which was frosty air escaping from the tubing, he was slowly backing away. I do believe he was genuinely alarmed.
Well, that became fun too. He had kept telling us about the “five-foot thick doors,” and now it became necessary to use one of them! Here is our door rising up from the floor.
And if you’re interested in how you move a five-foot door, here is the button panel. Press the (black) button and the door moves upwards, into place. Some in the tour group took turns doing it. . . .
Onward to a giant vacuum machine.
They had very loud vacuum pumps going in that round gray tank, attempting to remove … everything, so when they insert the gases they want, there will be no contamination from anything in the room. This would be vital to you if you were a physicist.
Don’t want to weary you, my readers, but here is the very most important thing that must be working well if you do any meaningful work here:
The Detector was halfway up in a open cylinder shaped room two stories up and two stories down:
You can see the round magnetic ring that is activated at times, down below on the floor.
Here we all are, listening to an explanation of another kind of detector, the MoNa… (The MoNa has quite a large Web presence.)
The back of the MoNa itself:
Tubes, wires, and cylinders, all connected in series.
And more –
Treat her with respect. People come from all over the world to use this famous Neutron Detector:
This is a map of the world, with green marking out the countries which have sent their physicists here, here to use this equipment we were looking at with pretty fair incomprehension.
One room had banks of screens, 40 something in all. Here’s part of it —
They are monitors that help you set up your experiment, dialing in the parameters of your experiment, and talking directly to the cyclotron.
In one of those screens you can see a grey box, which is an actual black and white real-time photo of what was going on inside the real cyclotron just then. All of a sudden someone noticed a small red diagonal line appearing at the center. THAT was a particle being sent through the cyclotron. Right then!
That set my imagination aflame. There was a teenage boy next to me at the glass window. We were each madly taking photographs of these screens – and then we made eye contact and smiled, recognizing the interest in each other, realizing that taking these photographs was a bit meaningless but the closest we were going to come to the action at this time.
That young boy just may make it to Switzerland some day.
I’ll be content to learn from the screens on my own Internet connection —
— Where I’ll be able to watch the realtime graphs of the intensity levels of the voltage going through the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Measured in Gigavolts!!!!!!
I’ll be fine here, “just in my own backyard.”