Author Archives: Lizzie

Los Alamos: Moving Beyond the Manhattan Project

Blueprints of the atomic bombs developed at Los Alamos during World War II are on sale today in the town's bookstore.

Blueprints of the atomic bombs developed at Los Alamos during World War II are on sale today in the town's bookstore.

No tour of American science would be complete without a stop in Los Alamos, New Mexico. From 1943 to 1945, the U.S. government sequestered many of the world’s leading physicists on this high desert plateau under the auspices of the Army Corps of Engineers Manhattan Engineer District with the mission to build an atomic bomb before the end of World War II. Until they accomplished their goal, hundreds of scientists, along with their families and a large administrative and technical staff, disappeared from their former lives, leaving behind only an address for a P.O. Box in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (You can check out all their staff badge photos here.)

While most of Los Alamos’s new inhabitants left soon after the use of their invention ended World War II, some stayed. The town of Los Alamos soon became a place with real addresses, accessible roads, great mountain biking, and some of the best public schools in the state of New Mexico. But it still carries the weight of its history, with blueprints of Little Boy and Fat Man (the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) for sale in the town bookstore, and classified weapons research ongoing at the lab. We went there not really sure what we would be allowed to see or how we would feel about it. But while the history was problematic, the current (unclassified) science we saw exhibited many of the same traits we observed at other labs: creativity, ingenuity, and a lot of foil.

Upon observing the success of the Trinity "gadget" on July 16th, 1945, Oppenheimer visibly relaxed years of built-up tension then quoted a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Success it was: just 0.025 seconds after detonation, the explosion was several hundred meters across. As physicist Kenneth Brainbridge remarked: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

Upon observing the success of the Trinity "gadget" on July 16th, 1945, Oppenheimer visibly relaxed years of built-up tension then quoted a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Success it was: just 0.025 seconds after detonation, the explosion was several hundred meters across. As physicist Kenneth Brainbridge remarked: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

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Making Big Science Smaller: Accelerator Technology

The story goes that after Ernest Lawrence came up for the design for the first cyclotron, he raced from the Berkeley library shouting, “I’m going to be famous!” His prediction was spot on: the cyclotron was the first particle accelerator, the first machine that could study matter on its smallest scales. Since it was became the model for all subsequent accelerators, its invention established Lawrence’s place as one of the most important and influential physicists of the 20th century.

Eighty years later, accelerators range from the relatively low-energy machines used to treat cancer in single hospital rooms to the Large Hadron Collider, which crosses an international border and gets us to energy levels last seen fractions of second after the Big Bang. Up until now bigger has meant better in terms of accelerators, but as we look forward to the proposed International Linear Collider and beyond, many physicists are investigating how to fit the biggest of Big Science onto a tabletop.

New accelerator technology at Fermilab

New accelerator technology at Fermilab

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Who’s afraid of the Superconducting Super Collider?

The site of the abandoned Superconducting Super Collider.

The site of the abandoned Superconducting Super Collider.

The Superconducting Super Collider is rarely discussed anymore, but its ghost has haunted high energy physics for the last 16 years. Slated to begin operations in 1999 in Waxahachie, Texas, the SSC would have been nearly three times as powerful as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Had it been completed, we would probably not be waiting with bated breath for the hints of the Higgs Boson from the LHC: the Higgs and a slew of other physics would most likely be among the recent accomplishments of jubilant experimental physicists.

Alas, after ten years of planning and $2 billion in construction costs, Congress pulled the plug on the project in 1993. Today, several of the buildings and 14 miles of the planned 54-mile-long tunnel sit abandoned in the Texas desert — the tunnel intentionally filled with water in order to preserve it. Despite talk of turning the site into a mushroom farm or a data center, the site hasn’t been used for much other than a filming location for Universal Soldier: The Return, which even we aren’t curious enough to watch.

But wondering about what’s actually there, Nick and I decided to search for its remains on our way from Chicago to Los Alamos.

Lizzie comes face to face with the greatest unrealized dream in American particle physics.

Lizzie comes face to face with the greatest unrealized dream in American particle physics.

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Neutrinos and the Intensity Frontier: Fermilab Part II (& MINOS Part I)

The enormous hole in the MINOS building that leads down to the NuMI neutrino beamline and MINOS's near detector.

The enormous hole in the MINOS building that leads down to the NuMI neutrino beamline and MINOS

In all the fuss about how amazing the LHC is going to be, we often forget that there are things it won’t be able to do. One of the most glaring holes in the LHC’s research program is how little work it plans to do on neutrino physics, one of the most exciting and promising fields in the quest to go beyond the Standard Model. Neutrinos are elementary particles that are nearly massless and have no charge. They rarely interact with other particles, so you need to make a lot of them to have the faintest hope of detecting just a few in experiments. In other words, you don’t need very high energy protons to produce neutrinos, but you do need a lot of lower energy ones.

It wouldn’t really make sense to devote much of the LHC’s particle yield to experiments that don’t need anything approaching its high energies, especially during the early years of the experiment. So Fermilab, somewhat presciently, is stepping in to fill the gap. As our tour guide and gracious host Kurt Riesselmann told us, “Fermilab is moving from the energy frontier to the intensity frontier” — meaning that instead of producing a small number of the highest possible energy particles, the lab is figuring out how to make as many lower energy particles as possible.

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Robert Wilson’s Weird Dream Lab: Fermilab, part 1

Perhaps I’m biased, but Fermilab is one of my favorite places.  Not only is it home to the biggest kind of Big Science — the Tevatron — but it also manages to be the quirkiest of the National Labs. I went there for the first time as a science writing intern in the summer of 2005 and, as this trip should make clear, never really looked back.

A panorama showcasing Wilsons blue-and-orange color scheme and his self-designed π-shaped power poles stretching off into the distance.

A panorama showcasing Wilson's blue-and-orange color scheme and his self-designed π-shaped power poles stretching off into the distance.

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A closer look at RHIC

A panoramic view of the PHENIX detectors building and counting house. To the left, an entrance to RHICs particle beam ring is visible. When access is required, the enormous concrete slabs that block the entrance are removed with a crane to expose the route into the tunnel.

A panoramic view of the PHENIX detector's building and counting house. To the left, an entrance to RHIC's particle beam ring is visible. When access is required, the enormous concrete slabs that block the entrance are removed with a crane to expose the route into the tunnel.

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven is a medium-to-high-energy machine that plays a unique role in the study of the early universe. While most particle accelerators collide single particles (like protons and antiprotons in the case Fermilab’s Tevatron), RHIC’s main purpose is to collide gold nuclei, each of which contains 79 protons.

Why the additional mass? The results of a proton-antiproton collision usually look something like this:

A proton-antiproton collision at the Tevatron

A proton-antiproton collision at the Tevatron (courtesy of Rockefeller University/CDF)

Gold ion collisions produce tracks like this:

A gold ion collision at RHIC

A gold ion collision at RHIC (courtesy of RHIC, found on Wikipedia)

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Physics finally cool enough for Rolling Stone

Coinciding conveniently with our trip, the new issue of Rolling Stone profiles Steven Chu, Obama’s Energy Secretary. (You can read a PDF here.) The Department of Energy is unquestionably a bureaucratic mess (exhibit A: the Superconducting Super Collider), and Chu says he is committed to supporting good science rather than playing politics — a refreshing change for the department, considering that one congressional science staffer told Jeff Goodell, the piece’s author, “In the past, the only qualification necessary to becoming secretary of energy was that you knew nothing about energy.” Continue reading