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.