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Chris Ruiz | TRIUMF | Canada

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Back from the brink

Hello again everyone. It has been an incredibly long time (on blog-world timescales) since my last post, but I am glad to say I am back and plan on stepping up the contributions again. Why have I been absent? Well let me recap….

I think I had mentioned that the DRAGON Group at TRIUMF were going to be running an exciting radioactive beam experiment at the beginning of the summer, one that I was looking forward to describing to you all. Well, as all the experimental physicists here will know, things don’t always go to plan (think LHC magnets) and yes, we had our very own failure of a crucial piece of hardware: the TRIUMF ISOL target that creates the radioactive beam. Although our problem was very small in scope compared to the LHC magnet crisis, it still has the effect for us of canceling weeks or even months of beamtime, depending on the particular circumstances.  ISOL targets are extremely complex combinations of high-energy particle beams, hot atom radiochemistry, and black magic! Accepting that every now and then the target will fail is part of the job. After all, producing beams that no-one else in the world can produce is a complicated and touchy business. 

In our case, all was not lost. While the lab rearranged its schedule quickly to replace the target with another that would service other radioactive beam experiments (different targets for different beams), we ran our ‘plan B’ experiment: using a very high intensity oxygen-17 beam using our newly-commitioned ‘Supernanogan’ offline ion source. We measured the fusion of oxygen-17 with helium, in an experiment destined to investigate the synthesis of heavy elements in rotating massive stars very early in the universe. The experiment was successful and analysis is underway.  

Then, I vanished into thin air on my annual holiday to Andalucia in Spain, where I found it extremely difficult to get internet access. Ultimately this is a good thing, you see, physicists are by nature (experimental physicists at least) very comfortable with technology and more than able to work remotely, whether it be on a beach, in the pub, in an airport,……its true. However, good internet access is key, as much of the work is in the form of discussion between collaborators, checking data, sending files, etc etc. Therefore many physicists find themselves working on holiday, something their partners (unless also physicists) probably loathe. This time in Spain I was stuck – no internet access and when I did have it it was touchy at best. So I had a lovely holiday instead, and forgot all about physics…or almost….

Andalucia has a rich scientific history, something that the western world is not nearly enough aware of. While I was there I started thinking about books I had read about the Moorish conquest of Spain in the year 711 CE, and reading some of my Father’s books on the subject. On returning from Spain I did some internet research and found a great documentary by the BBC on ‘Science and Islam’, which touches on some of the history of Andalucia. The documentary was narrated by a friend and colleague Prof. Jim Al-Khalili, from the University of Surrey. It is a fantastic documentary and I urge everyone to see it. I plan to make some posts (with pictures) on Andalucia at a later date and discuss some of the interesting scientific history it has given us. Jim Al-Khalili has also made a series called ‘Atom’, which very nicely lays down the history of atomic and nuclear physics and the beginnings of particle physics, starting from the first real experimental evidence of ‘atoms’: Brownian motion, and Einstein’s interpretation of it.

This series also got me interested because it contains stories of the often hot-headed personalities in physics and their battles with the establishment or each other. For example, I did not fully appreciate that Feynman Diagrams, something ubiquitously used in particle physics today, were zealously attacked when a young Richard Feynman introduced them and the methodology associated with them to a galaxy of physics stars in 1948 including Bohr, Dirac and Oppenheimer. Spurred on by this story I’m delving back into QED, something I have not touched since my university days. I’m starting with Feynman’s 1949 paper in Physical Review entitled ‘Space-Time Approach to Quantum Electrodynamics’. Very interesting indeed when you put it in its historical context.

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