Monday 19 November 2007

At the Rutherford Appleton Lab (again), it’s quite unusual for me to see the target when the beam is on. I usually go down to the target and do some fiddling, then come back upstairs and activate the beam by computer from the safety of the control room from which it’s impossible to see the little room with the target in it. Then, you wait for the data to be taken and turn the beam off again before returning to fiddle with the apparatus some more.

Today, I went for a wee whilst the beam was on. I saw an eerie blue glow coming from the little enclosure in which the target is sat. ‘Ah,’ I thought to myself, ‘That looks interesting and physicsy.’ (I’m a physicist—I’m afraid finding physicsy things interesting comes with the territory.) ‘I’ll ask about that when I get back to the control room.’

Having had my wee, and eager to procrastinate slightly more (being a man and thus able to pee much quicker than a girl* is disadvantageous in a procrastination situation), I decided to walk over to the gate above the target and have a look, to see if I might get a better idea of what was causing this phenomenon.

One of the disappointing things about RAL, and indeed particle physics in general, is that there’s not often a lot to see. Muons, the particles I’m working with, are, like all particles, invisible. They’re tiny, and moving far too fast that you could ever see them anyway. They’re also quite silent. What I want from a particle accelerator is a whooshing, roaring sound somewhere between a wind tunnel and a hydroelectric turbine as brightly coloured particles shoot through a huge glass pipe in the centre of the experimental hall, the occasional one hissing and popping through the rivets holding the pipe up and bouncing, leaving a trail of sparks, across the concrete floor. Instead, there’s dull metal and concrete surfaces, and the sound, though pretty loud, is the tedious whirr of computers and vacuum pumps, not the white-water whoosh of cascading rainbow-coloured rays.

So, this blue glow, flickering slightly, was music to my eyes. Perhaps the muon detectors literally sparked as the electronics detect the incoming particles…maybe it was the magnet glowing…for…some…reason…to be honest, I didn’t really have a very good theory. If anything, the notion of the muon detector glowing blue seemed a little ridiculous and unlikely, but the popular sci-fi lobe of my brain had overpowered my rational, physics sense (it’s a bit like common sense, except possessed by scientists) and I was imagining nuclear reactors surrounded by a faint blue glow, the cracking of spark chambers counting cosmic rays and early experiments with cathode ray tubes.

I got there. Tentatively, I held onto the metal fencing which was preventing me from falling into the mildly dangerous radiation. I leant over. I saw…

A blue light bulb.

It was a blue fluorescent bulb, flickering slightly, presumably because it’s a bit old, or the connection’s a bit loose, or something. My hopes utterly dashed, I walked dejected back to the control room. I was glad I hadn’t come back and asked—oh, how the cynical old physicists, their hopes and dreams long since left in ruin, would have laughed!

The other thing I saw on the way to the toilet was a sign on a piece of wall saying ‘laser enclosure—no drilling’. I can see the rationale: you’re drilling away; oops, there we go, seems like it’s gone through; better pull out the drill for a quick look; bring your eye up to the hole to check that it did go right through; permanent blindness in one eye! Probably worth laminating an A4 sign to avert that.

The question, though, is who this sign is for. What kind of idiot lets loose a workman in a radiation facility with a drill without giving extremely explicit instructions to not drill fucking anything without finding out what’s behind it first? And what kind of workman is stupid enough to need telling that anyway? It’s probably quite good advice in a house, where it’s unlikely that whatever’s behind that peskily-positioned partition is radioactive, a vacuum, toxic, blinding or several of the above. In a particle accelerator hall..?

So, contradictory advice today: always check yourself before asking questions lest you look an idiot, and always ask questions before checking yourself lest you end up blind. What do you value more: your ego, or your eyesight?

* Strictly, men don’t pee faster. Our urethras are longer, and apparently we’re only capable of sustaining 25 ml/s, whereas girls can manage some 80 ml/s. The difference is, presumably, in complexity of accessing the openings to our respective urethras, and, in particularly busy loos, in waiting for the people in front of you to access theirs. It sounds a bit funny when you put it like that, though.

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