Friday 12 October 2007

The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, RAL to its friends, is a bizarre place. The part I’ve seen over the last couple of days is EMU, the European MUon somethingorother, which is used to bombard lumps of material with muons.

The whole place feels like the Physics Zone of the Crystal Maze (if only I’d been on the Crystal Maze production team…). The experimental hall of ISIS, which doesn’t stand for anything but they still insist on capitalising, is huge and industrial in a slightly grimy way that feels like a big, real physics experiment. It’s a gigantic space straddled by immense cranes across its high roof which, if their labelling is to be believed, can lift thirty tonnes each. Down the centre runs the beam pipe, carrying precious, precious protons and splaying out from it at a variety of angles are various beamlines for muon and neutron experiments. Everything is metal or concrete. Everywhere are huge banks of electronics. As you walk past computer screens, mouse pointers eerily operate themselves as the computer is controlled remotely by a physicist somewhere. This place means business.

The health and safety here means business, too. In a depressingly driving-theory-test–like escapade, I was presented with ten multiple-choice questions of which I had to get some, many or most right, lest I be forced to take it again over and over until I did. The most interesting thing, which isn’t much of a accolade given that most of the stuff is about the colour of signage and what number to ring in an emergency (it’s not 999—it’s 2222, for reasons best know to whoever installed the ’phone system), is the question which calls upon you to identify the different types of alarms. There are two—a tinkly bell and a klaxon—and their meanings are quite different. The tinkly bell, conventionally enough, means fire, and you have to get the Hell out to an appropriate assembly point. The klaxon, on the other hand, corresponds to what is euphemistically called a ‘site emergency’, the response to which is get the Hell in, close all the windows and doors, and wait for the cloud of toxic and radioactive waste to drift to whatever settlement is downwind of the site.

One thing which was prominent in this experiment was the cryogenics—the apparatus for cooling down our sample, eventually, to 300mK, about -273°C, only 0.3°C hotter than absolute zero, the coldest it’s physically possible to get. From some crevices of your apparatus, a slowly-tumbling mist of water vapour drifts towards the floor, as though the giant cryostat is just an elaborate container for dry ice. These rolling clouds of ground-hugging vapour reinforce the feeling of real physics. Or possibly prog rock.

It’s not all so huge and industrial, though. The cryogenic apparatus sometimes needs to be brought back to room temperature—apart from anything else, if you try to pick up a metal object even at a balmy -150°C your fingers tend to stick to it until you literally rip them off and, as such, there are plenty of hot air guns lying about the place to warm stuff up with. I wondered what incredible bespoke heat gun an international physics facility such as this might have. In fact, I nearly asked where the presumably-amazing bits of kit came from, but was saved from what I now realise would have been mild embarrassment by picking one up. A cursory examination satisfied me that it was an ordinary hairdryer. In case you’re wondering, the cryogenics specialists’ brand of choice appears to be Remington.

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