— By Nick Zacchia, Proton Therapy co-op student
“So you shoot people in the face with a cyclotron… AWESOME!” a friend of mine declared matter-of-factly. They had conveniently gleaned over the part where I explained the science behind proton therapy. Although they hadn’t quite got the intricacies of the science correct, they had understood the underlying message; that I have the coolest job in the world. I’m an engineering undergrad who packed up his stuff, got on a plane in Montreal and headed to Vancouver for a summer job at TRIUMF: Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics. It’s only been about a week, but I already feel right at home.
I’m at a place where people value science for its own sake. Where no one is afraid to nerd-out. A place where dark matter matters. Where people are excited merely by the prospect of learning. Today I went to a lecture on baryons, tomorrow it is synchrotron physics, the day after it’s something I won’t even pretend to understand. Yet I’m encouraged to attend, to ask questions, to learn all that I can. Next week I’m being trained in radiation protection, not because it’s strictly necessary, but because it’s interesting and will provide insight into things like the situation in Japan. Plus, who doesn’t want to be trained on how to handle nuclear waste?
Really I feel that one of the greatest things about TRIUMF is that it is filled with people who never lost their childhood wonder. The curiosity that we were all born with but which somehow or other gets eroded by time, by life, by the monotony of everyday. But here people are free to let their curiosity get the best of them. It’s what drives the entire lab I think. People wondering about big questions and then going out and finding the answers.
My supervisor told me today that TRIUMF has to produce to stay viable and what TRIUMF produces he said, is scientific papers. Knowledge. Free for the taking. I find something very rewarding in that.
And if that wasn’t enough, TRIUMF is also helping to save people’s lives. Which brings me back to the proton therapy. The “shooting people in the face with a cyclotron”. Without getting into the details of the procedure, which Wikipedia already does admirably, I’ll just say that using an 18 meter, 4000 ton magnet to create particles capable of destroying eye cancer while leaving the eye and (importantly) the brain intact is pretty sweet. During these treatments the entire facility becomes devoted to these few patients. Patients who, thanks to science, will see another day.
A few years back a friend and I tried to convince everyone to replace the word “cool” with the word “science” in their vocabularies (since they are basically synonymous). It never much caught on as a fad, but I can tell you that working at a particle accelerator is definitely SCIENCE.