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Chris Ruiz | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Eye of the Storm

It’s Saturday morning and I’m enjoying a well-earned but short-lived break, sipping coffee, Philip Glass on the stereo, about to head out to gym and some shops. 

This week has been hectic with the start of Radioactive Ion Beam (RIB) delivery. I am currently working with the TUDA Group from the UK here at TRIUMF taking some data on elastic scattering of fluorine-18 on protons, in inverse kinematics, using the ISAC-II superconducting accelerator. Everything on our end is working beautifully. The entire TUDA electronics and data acquisition system, consisting of large racks with power supplies, screens, cables and computers, was moved from its usual home in ISAC-I to ISAC-II, along with TUDA itself, a large vacuum chamber accommodating several highly-segmented high-precision silicon detectors. The move went well, and the calibration data we have taken with oxygen-18 looks great! 

Life isn’t always kind however. Turns out that the fluorine-18 beam is not reaching the intensities required for the experiment due to some spurious problems with the production target. Anyone who has ever worked with an ISOL (Isotope Separation On-Line) system will tell you how finicky the production targets can be sometimes. Extracting high-intensity beams is a tricky art, and that is what makes certain facilities around  the world including TRIUMF unique – their ability to produce certain  high-intensity RIBS that cannot be made anywhere else, and therefore the only place to do experiments with them. 

Although TUDA will still take valuable data, it is not at the intensity hoped for, which basically would mean the team will have to come back at a later date. All data is good data, however. We tend to be overly ambitious when requesting beamtime and asking for more than we need to produce something publishable. Always striving for the highest quality data that pushes the technology to the limits.  What is certain however, is that there definitely is not enough intensity to do the DRAGON fluorine-18 experiment, which nominally requires two orders of magnitude higher beam intensity than an elastic scattering experiment. So we have been thinking up contingency plans and what we might do is switch to an already-scheduled stabled beam experiment using oxygen-17, which is just as exciting an experiment. Then once the targets are behaving like they usually do again, we will run fluorine-18. 

I will post some pictures of the TUDA system anyway, and the operations center etc. It is an impressive setup that always produces great data. I am biased however, as my thesis project was in part commissioning TUDA with it’s first radioactive beam experiment way back in 2001 😉

On another note, I am currently reading a very entertaining book by Bill Bryson called ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, chronicling  science’s greatest celebrities-who-never-were, faux pas, grudges, failures, tragedies, as well as of course the stuff we all know about, the Einsteins and the Newtons. It also takes a look into scientific culture and attempts to characterize who ‘scientists’ are, all with Bryson’s unique and entertaining style. One thing that I noticed in the book however, was his incredulity, and his attempt to induce incredulity in the reader, at the great expense of scientific endeavor, illustrated by examples such as the great Superconducting Super Collider debacle, upgrades to Fermilab etc, citing the ‘billions’ of dollar costs of construction of these places as well as the ‘hundreds of millions’ of dollars for upkeep. This makes me think back to when the LHC had its little ‘glitch’ last year, and the scores of ignorant comments from certain users on the BBC news website exclaiming what a great waste of money the project is, with its ‘5 billion’ price tag.

I despair at how people cannot put this all into its correct context. A grand physics project like the LHC will take a large amount of money (to you and me) to construct, and run. However, this money does not go into a proverbial ‘black hole’ like the mini- ones the cranks think we’re all going to create. This money goes to, amongst other things, the salaries and therefore kid’s educations, family lives of thousands of scientists, technicians, administrators, cleaners, janitors,… (and not even what would be considered a ‘high salary’ by any means in the corporate world, in fact pretty paltry on that scale, even for the scientists). It also goes into contracts for local and international commercial enterprises to build and install equipment: welders, circuit manufacture, cabling, plumbing, electricians, construction, suppliers of all kinds. It also goes into education. By assembling some of the brightest minds in the world into these grand projects, and with money available for ‘communications and outreach’, children from all over the world are given the opportunity to see first hand the cutting edge of scientific enquiry and learn from the experts in the field, student bursaries are made available, the fostering of the next generation of great scientists is nurtured. And all this….as well as finding out the fundamental secrets of how our universe works, akin to first discovering how gravity works, or discovering radioactivity, or the tons of spin-off developments that come from the cutting edge and trickle down into society like, amongst others: cancer treatment, MRI and PET scans, GPS, CDs and DVDs, iPhones, the World-Wide Web,…..

So you see, a huge economy and advancement of knowledge and technology, and a large human community is supported by this money. A few billion dollars to start with and some hundreds of millions to keep going. Lets contrast that with some other figures.

  1. $700 billion dollars in bail out funds to US banks. Much of that squandered by executives and the CEOs, not a lot of it going to the lowly office staff who have families to support that were laid-off in cost-cutting exercises.  
  2. Over $500 billion dollars for the Iraq War, not counting the human cost of all those who died on all sides.
  3. $7 billion dollars. Amount of insurance claimed by owner of the Twin Towers after 9/11. 
  4. $135 billion dollars. Equivalent cost of Apollo Program.

 

So we can see, that the cost of something like the LHC, or a modest enterprise like TRIUMF, is really nothing, compared to the costs listed above, which (excluding Apollo Missions) have questionable value at best. The value for money of scientific enquiry can be illustrated by the success of the Hubble Space Telescope. Sure it cost a hell of a lot of money, but it continues to exponentially advance our knowledge of our Universe in ways Einstein and Newton could only have dreamed of. 

To answer the criticism of one naysayer on the BBC comments page regarding the LHC, that the money could be better spent helping the poor: Fine, we should be giving money to the poor ANYWAY, but an extra 1 dollar for every poor person on the planet, while maybe making a bit of a difference for a day or two, would be more destructive coming out of the budget of the largest scientific experiment ever attempted than from say, the salaries of the top-paid 1000 executives of the richest corporations, or by shaving a tiny amount of all the superpowers’ military budgets. 

To answer another criticism, ‘what good the LHC does for someone like me right now?’: stop being so selfish, the science performed now, apart from giving us knowledge about our very existence, will bear fruit for our future generations, and while it might not make petrol cheaper for you right now or enable you to have a cheaper iPod or a bigger TV or a voice activated channel changer so you don’t have to get your lazy butt up from that reclining seat, it may pave the way for realistic human interplanetary space travel, new energy technology, new cures for disease, new ways to enhance our lives and our place in the cosmos as well as have a meaningful and self-aware existence in it.

And to that, I sign off 🙂

 

 

ISAC Control Centre

ISAC Control Centre

 

TUDA Electronics and Chamber

TUDA Electronics and Chamber

 

TUDA and beamline

TUDA and beamline

Data!

Data!

 

TIGRESS Array with part of SHARC chamber at centre

TIGRESS Array with part of SHARC chamber at centre

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