On CUORE, we’re looking for a faint signal of radioactivity. That means we can’t let anything swamp that signal: we have to clean away the normal low-level of dirt present in the atmosphere and biological systems. Even something as normal as a banana has so much naturally-occurring radiation that the “banana-year” is a (someone irreverent and imprecise) unit of measurement for backgrounds of dark matter experiments.
The parts we’re cleaning will be guide tubes for a calibration system. Through them, we’ll place wires close to the detector, then remove them again when it’s time for the main data taking. The calibration wires have a measured amount of radioactivity, and we use that known signal to calibrate the other signals within CUORE.
We used a sonic bath to clean the parts: they’re in a bag with soap water, inside a larger tub filled with tap water. To agitate everything (like the dasher in a clothes washer) the machine uses sound. It’s a bit like the little machines that some people use to clean their contact lenses, but larger: about the size of a laundry room sink, or a restaurant kitchen sink.
My favorite part of the process was the warning on the side: running with an empty bath could cause burnout of the ultrasonic coupler. “The ultrasonic coupler” sound like something out of science fiction: like a combination of “sonic screwdriver” and “flux capacitor”. But it’s not fiction– this is just what we need to do for our daily work!
The noise it makes sounds a bit like an electric fly zapper: a low level electric buzz and cackle, with a faint hiss hinting that there’s something higher pitched above that. It’s practically impossible to hear the main frequency because it’s pitched so much higher than human hearing: the noise is at 30-40kHz, and a child can usually hear as high as 20kHz. Some of the lower resonances fall into an audible range, which is what makes it sound like there’s more going on than I can hear.
In the smaller machine (about the size of a bathroom sink), the agitation noise was more audible, almost headache-inducing in long doses. Since I just watched the fourth Harry Potter movie, it reminded me of the recorded mermaid message: you can only hear it when you’re underwater. If you’re in air, it sounds like a screech instead of a message. Knowing the line between science fiction and fact, I didn’t actually stick my ear in the water (and we wore earplugs in the lab).
There’s a funny effect with some of the bubbles in the tub. They get caught in vibrational nodes within the water, so even though they’re clearly made of air, they don’t rise to the top. It’s like an atom trap made of lasers holding a single atom in place, except this works at a macroscopic level so it’s more intuitive. Seeing the modes in action is a little reward for having worked through all those Jackson problem sets where we deconvolved arbitrary functions in various ways.
When the parts come out at the end, and after we repeat the process with some citric acid (like what you find in lemon juice) and then rinse everything, the rods are a completely different color. They’ve gone from a dead-leaf brown to a peachy pink, all shiny and bright and hopeful. It’s a clean start for a new detector. We preserved the clean exteriors by sealing them in vacuum bags, and told the chem lab supervisor we were done for the day.