DIY Particle Physics

In honor of the blog’s new name, an article about people who build their own cyclotrons, via symmetry.

For many of those obsessed, the only way to satiate their hunger for these machines is to build their own. There are no guidebooks or instruction manuals, and if you bought the raw materials off the shelf, it would cost around $125,000. On average, amateur cyclotrons take two to three years to build.

“It didn’t take long to become obsessed….Where I would be without the cyclotron project I cannot even begin to imagine.” —Tim Ponter. Photo by Tim Koeth, via symmetry.

The amateur cyclotron builders mentioned range from high school students to college professors to Fermilab scientists. To bring down the cost of their hobby they scavenge old equipment, a technique familiar to the first cyclotron builders. Columbia’s cyclotron, for example, was built partly from salvaged parts in the 1930s. It ended its life as scrap metal.

The cyclotron’s heyday as a cutting-edge research tool is mostly over, though they are still widely used in medicine. The largest one ever built is 60 feet in diameter and is still running at the Canadian physics lab TRIUMF. The smallest involves a single electron trapped in a magnetic field and is perhaps more appropriately called an artificial atom.

Instituto de Biología, UNAM, Mexico City

Posting has been slow because I recently went back to Mexico City for a visit. Most of my time was spent researching (i.e., drinking) the ancient and unsettling alcoholic beverage called pulque for an upcoming article, but I started off my trip with a visit to a few labs at the Biology Institute at the UNAM, the public university of 250,000 students where I spent the last two years studying comparative literature.

Biology is perhaps the science I am least familiar with; years spent running around physics labs can sadly sort of make you forget about the life sciences. High energy physics, particularly, operates simultaneously at two scales that seem pretty removed from life on Earth: the very small (quarks, neutrinos) and the very large (black holes, the origins of the universe). I was delighted and a bit surprised to see a similar conflation of disparate scales in the Biology Institute labs I visited. By studying the genetics of specific animal populations, my tour guides Noemi Matías Ferrer, a graduate student in biological sciences working on her Ph.D., and Patricia Rosas Escobar, a staff biologist originally from Baja California, are able to learn about entire ecosystems, humans’ effect on the environment, and life on our planet more generally.

Some of the chemical buffers Paty and Noemi use to extract DNA from their samples. Paty is in the background.

Read the rest of this entry »

Physics on the Fringe

I have a review of Margaret Wertheim’s wonderful new book Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything up today at Bookforum. Wertheim has been collecting examples of outsider theoretical physics for fifteen years, and in Physics on the Fringe she considers what drives people to try to piece together the laws of the universe entirely on their own. As she follows the life and work of the “fringe theorizer” Jim Carter, who, like many outsider physicists, rejects math-heavy field theory in favor of his own home-spun ideas, she examines the professionalization of physics, the rise of abstract mathematics, and the oft-ignored question of who has been left behind as we march toward a “theory of everything.” One of my favorite parts the book that I had to leave out of the review is Wertheim’s discussion of Michael Faraday. [Edited to add: a version of my discussion of Faraday is now included in the Bookforum review as well.]

Michael Faraday, experimentalist extraordinaire. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Michael Faraday, the experimental physicist who did pioneering work on electromagnetism in the early nineteenth century, walked the fine line between insider and outsider in a way that is nearly impossible to do today. Faraday grew up poor and began his scientific career as a bottle washer in a laboratory in London’s Royal Institution. Like Carter, he had no university education and puzzled through the mysteries of the universe largely on his own. Unlike Carter, he was eventually regarded as a genius and recognized as one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time. In fact, it was Faraday who first developed field theory after sprinkling iron filings near a magnet and observing the predictable patterns they formed. “Ironically,” Wertheim writes of Carter, “the one major figure in the history of physics whose life story in some respects paralleled his own had been the source of an idea he could not stomach.”

Faraday lived at a time when the boundaries between amateur experimentalist and professional scientist weren’t quite as rigid as they are today, but he, too, felt the sting of being ignored by the academy. It wasn’t until the more respected physicist James Clerk Maxwell turned the results of Faraday’s experiments into differential equations that the physics community embraced field theory, setting the stage for the industrial revolution, the telecommunications industry, home electricity, and quantum mechanics. Ironically, Faraday’s lack of a formal education meant that he couldn’t understand Maxwell’s equations; Wertheim tells us that he “died a hero, but an alien in the world he had helped create,” and it’s easy to imagine him sympathizing with Carter and the other outsider physicists who still feel left out of that world today.

Click here for more information about Physics on the Fringe. Margaret Wertheim also runs the very cool Institute for Figuring here in Los Angeles.

Saying Goodbye to the Tevatron

Welcome to what I hope will be an occasional series: Labs of the Past, in which I take a look at labs or pieces thereof that no longer exist. Last fall, Fermilab shut down its flagship accelerator, the Tevatron, which had spent decades reigning as the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. Fermilab is still going strong and is throwing its considerable weight behind an innovative intensity frontier program, but I wasn’t the only one who was sad to see the Tevatron go. Needless to say, I was delighted to hear this week that data from the CDF and DZero collaborations is still actively contributing to the hunt for the Higgs boson. And in case you need to brush up on the accelerator’s many other achievements, the latest print issue of Symmetry Magazine includes a lovely piece on the Tevatron’s legacy by Rhianna Wisniewski.

I got my start writing about physics as a Fermilab intern, so when it was time for the Tevatron to be laid to rest last fall, I felt like I had to be there to say goodbye. What follows is my account of attending the Tevatron’s funeral on Septemeber 30, 2011.

An aerial view of the Tevatron. The Main Injector can also be seen in the background. Image courtesy Fermilab/DOE.

Approximately seven hours after the Tevatron shutdown, I squeezed out of Fermilab’s Users’ Center bar to head to an Irish wake for what was, until just a few months ago, the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. This being the CDF party, The Drug Sniffing Dogs, the collaboration’s official rock band, had been going strong for three and half hours and showed no sign of stopping. The set list had devolved from what the lead singer called “crying in your beer songs” like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” to dance party favorites like “Super Freak.” I had signed two commemorative T-shirts, one on someone’s body, while sipping Two Brothers’ Atom Smasher beer and munching on homemade cookies frosted with the CDF logo. The whole affair was tinged with the melancholy elation of the night after high school graduation, with everyone desperately savoring the last moments of an already bygone era before truly letting themselves move on to what they hoped would be bigger and better things.

For many physicists, those bigger and better things await them at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which is already colliding particles at over three times the energy of the Tevatron and only operating at half power. Others will be staying at Fermilab to work on the lab’s new intensity frontier program, which involves building state-of-the-art superconducting accelerators to study muons and those potentially faster-than-light neutrinos you’ve heard so much about. Still others are moving on to careers in industry or medicine, while some are retiring along with the Tevatron. But on Friday, all eyes were on the machine that had, for the last 28 years, led the way in the study of the fundamental building blocks of our universe and made the Illinois prairie the best place in the world to be a high energy physicist. Read the rest of this entry »

The Diaconescu Group, UCLA

Doing your own experiment can be intoxicating, especially when it involves explosions. Just ask Stephanie Quan, who found herself on the path to becoming a scientist once her high school chemistry teacher killed some time after the AP test by turning her class loose with a book of experiments. Steph already liked chemistry a lot, but once she found herself working on an experiment that resulted in underwater explosions, she was hooked.

Steph is now a first-year graduate student at UCLA working toward a Ph.D. in chemistry. She is a member of the Diaconescu Group and does organometallic chemistry, which, she explains, “is sort of the bridge” between organic and inorganic chemistry. Organic chemistry involves the chemicals found in biological systems—namely carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen— while inorganic chemistry focuses on metals and materials. Steph’s organometallic work involves creating compounds made up of an atom of metal surrounded by partially organic molecules called ligands. The hope is that one day these compounds will be used as catalysts in reactions that will synthesize biodegradable polymers, or, as Steph explains in non-scientist speak, be used to “create plastics that are environmentally friendly.” But right now, Steph is just working on making the catalyst compounds themselves. You can see an analog to the structure she is aiming for in this picture from her group’s website:

In this diagram you can see how the ligand molecule (left) will eventually surround an atom of metal (the red Ce, or cerium, on the right). Steph starts with pure ferrocene (represented by the Fe/pentagon configuration) and works to build these compounds up from there. She'll be using indium instead of cerium as the metal center in her final product. Diagram courtesy of the Diaconescu Group.

To help her keep track of where she is in the process, she draws diagrams of the compounds on her fume hood in the lab. (Pro tip: you can erase permanent marker with acetone.)

Hand drawn diagram on Steph's fume hood. If you look closely, you can see that it's a rough sketch of the ligand molecule from the diagram above.

Steph has been painstakingly moving through each step in the sequence of creating the catalyst compound since September, and when I was in the lab she thought she was two steps away from the final product. Eventually, she estimates that she’ll be able to complete the whole process in a week and a half. Read the rest of this entry »


It is a common lament among science writers that science doesn’t follow the news cycle. Discoveries can be few and far between, and they are nearly always interspersed with unexpected tangents, false starts and dead ends—all of which can be lost on the way to the final report. When experiments are reduced to their results, they lose their texture—and we, the public, lose any sense of what it is like to actually do science.

Visiting labs is one of the best ways to see experimental science in action. I should know—I’ve been to a lot of them. On this blog, I hope to extend my sights beyond the country’s biggest physics labs and focus on laboratories of all kinds, including ones that stretch the very definition of the word. What do labs look like? Feel like? Smell like? Where are they, exactly? Who works in them? And why?

Once I get up and running, you can expect me to post about one lab visit every week or so. Supplemental material about the science I saw, the people I met, the history of the place, or anything else that strikes my fancy will be posted in between. I will mostly be visiting labs in and around southern California, though you will see dispatches from places that may surprise you as well. Comments and (constructive) criticism are encouraged. Please stay tuned!