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.
Like Oak Ridge, Argonne National Laboratory serves as a living witness to the continuity of American 20th century physics: after its first incarnation as part of the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory (the group that first successfully isolated Plutonium), it was the first research site to be designated a National Laboratory after the war. In the sixty-five years between some of the world’s first nuclear reactor research and today’s most cutting-edge accelerator development, there was hardly a science-and-technology subject in which Argonne didn’t have a hand.
This history is written all over the lab, even as it is already carving itself a place in the 21st century:
The beautiful but abandoned Building 330, which housed the 1950s-era Chicago Pile 5 reactor. Argonne was also the second home of Enrico Fermi's Chicago Pile 1, which was moved to the lab from the University of Chicago in 1943 and renamed Chicago Pile 2.
In an amazing contrast, old warehouses lodge some of the world's most cutting-edge research.
Argonne's obviously much newer Advanced Photon Source, which produces the brightest x-rays in the western hemisphere.
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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.
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The MINOS Far Detector, buried 2,341 feet beneath the earth in the Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota. A mural by Joseph Giannetti about the power of science is painted on the right wall.
After visiting the point of origin of the MINOS neutrinos on our Fermilab tour at the beginning of the trip, it seemed a fitting conclusion to stop by their destination as my own road neared its end. So with Lizzie in Mexico, I made the Summer’s last science-related stop at the Soudan Mine with my friend Sam on our way back across the country.
As discussed in our previous post, the MINOS experiment uses a beam of neutrinos called NuMI (Neutrinos at the Main Injector) produced by decaying protons from Fermilab’s Main Injector. These neutrinos travel 450 miles through the earth to the 2341-foot deep Soudan Mine in northeast Minnesota (and beyond, of course), where physicists can isolate the Far Detector from just about any interference. Despite the fact that the detector is shaped like an enormous stop sign, only a tiny number of neutrinos obey the symbolic request: of all the trillions of neutrinos produced by NuMI, the Far Detector sees only about one a day.
Courtesy of Fermilab.
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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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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 officially on the road! We left New York on Sunday night, enjoyed an excellent tour of Oak Ridge National Laboratory on Tuesday, and are now in Chicago, getting ready to go to Fermilab tomorrow. We were hoping that things would calm down once we got moving (leaving us more time to blog!), but this trip seems to be taking on a mind of its own. In just the last few days, we’ve added Argonne National Laboratory and JPL to our itinerary. Thanks to everyone for your interest in this project, and check back soon for posts about Brookhaven, Oak Ridge, and Fermilab!
-Lizzie and Nick