While planning our trip, Lizzie and I realized that we would have an awkward amount of extra time between our visits to the Superconducting Super Collider and Los Alamos. Though the drive from east Texas to New Mexico is formidable enough to require a night’s stay along the way, it has such high speed limits and so few turns that the miles tick by more quickly than just about anywhere else in the country. But since the July 4th weekend meant that we had to be at Los Alamos by the 2nd – unless they’re in the middle of a particularly intensive run, physicists get the same holiday weekends as the rest of us – there was only about a half-day to spare.
This wasn’t enough time to accommodate our original idea of camping at White Sands and driving by the Trinity Test Site (which is closed to the public all but two days a year anyway). But it turned out to be just the right amount of time to visit the accurately if unimaginatively named Very Large Array (VLA), located about 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico.
The heart of the Very Large Array
A wider view of the heart of the VLA. As the view extends outward, the scale starts to become apparent.
Click through to view an enormous panorama of the VLA. Even though the Array was not at its most outspread position, this enormous image still does not capture the whole thing.
Nestled on a vast, mountain-ringed, 7000-foot plateau in the central New Mexican desert, the VLA is safe from the interfering radio waves of just about anything that doesn’t come from space. Though it is comprised of 27 separate dishes, the observatory operates as a unified whole: by interferometrically combining the data from each dish, the array can simulate the results of a single radio telescope up to 22 miles wide.
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
Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source, we would discover, is just that — a light source. And despite the differences in scale and the methods of production, it isn’t so different from the studio lights used by photographers. In each case, the way to get the best image is to shine a really bright light on the subject and take a picture of it. Indeed, the only respect in which the light source’s name can be misleading is that it does not confine itself to the visible light spectrum, but uses everything between infrared and x-rays.
A view of the workspaces surrounding the smaller ring at Brookhaven's National Synchrotron Light Source
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We’re Lizzie Wade and Nick Russell. This summer, we will be taking a road trip across the United States before Lizzie starts a Fulbright in Mexico City. On the way, we will visit some of the sites and laboratories that have contributed (and continue to contribute) to the history of high energy physics. We aim to document a particular moment in science and history: as the Large Hadron Collider slowly rumbles to life in Europe, it promises to change not only our understanding of the universe at its most fundamental level, but also the manner in which high energy physics is conducted around the world.
Our itinerary takes us to seven National Laboratories and to the site of the abandoned Superconducing Super Collider (and hopefully to the Very Large Array, just for fun):
•Brookhaven National Laboratory (Brookhaven, Long Island, New York)
•Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tennessee)
•Fermilab National Laboratory (Batavia, Illinois)
•Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, Illinois)
•The former planned site of the Superconducting Super Collider (Waxahachie, Texas)
•Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos, New Mexico)
•The Very Large Array (Sorroco, New Mexico)
•The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, California)
•Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley, CA)
•Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA)
•SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (Stanford, CA)
In addition to this blog, we will be working with Symmetry Magazine, the joint Fermilab/SLAC publication about particle physics, to produce a multimedia piece. We hope you enjoy what we come up with!
-Lizzie and Nick