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James Doherty | Open University | United Kingdom

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Accelerating Down Under

Believe it not, there are particle accelerators to be found beyond the outer-Geneva area – even in such far flung locations as Melbourne, Australia. You may recall from a previous blog post that I befriended some Aussie particle physicists at CERN during the summer who kindly invited me to a two-week accelerator school at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. And here I am!

The Australian Synchrotron opened in 2007 and is the largest stand-alone piece of scientific infrastructure in the southern hemisphere. It is a source of highly intense light which is used for a wide range of research purposes.

The Australian Synchrotron.

The Australian Synchrotron.

Synchrotrons are circular machines which accelerate electrons to extremely high energies, producing electron beams which travel at almost the speed of light. As the beam of electrons takes a circular path around the machine, the electrons emit intense radiation known as synchrotron light. This light is really useful for imaging, analysis and in a wide range of scientific experiments.

In some accelerators, operators attempt to minimize the emission of synchrotron radiation so that particles retain maximum energy for high-energy collisions. For example, in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), protons are accelerated as they have a much larger mass than electrons and so suffer less from loss of synchrotron radiation. Also, the larger the circumference of the circular path which the particles take, the weaker the synchrotron radiation emission – that’s why the LHC was built with a huge 27 km circumference. Linear accelerators, such as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in the US, avoid the emission of synchrotron radiation altogether as particles travel in a straight line.

So a synchrotron’s key output – synchrotron light – is the very same thing which operators of other accelerators voraciously try to minimize.

The Australian Synchrotron’s accelerator school is an intensive two-week course on particle physics and accelerators. It attracts student physicists from across Australia (and occasionally the UK!), as well as lecturers and tutors from leading institutions from across the world.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks to hear about my adventures at the Australian Synchrotron.

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