Today: Brookhaven National Lab! During the summer they give tours on Sundays and they saved the best for last: RELATIVISITC HEAVY ION COLLIDER!!!! What is that? Well, just like the name, it takes heavy ions (gold, specifically) and collides them…. relativistically! See the tiny circle in the middle of this map? Zoom in and take a closer look, that’s RHIC.
There were way, way more people out there than I had imagined! Who knew particle physics drew the crowds. They split the tours up into different groups, and first we took this bus and listened to this Actual Research Scientist™ describe a few of the buildings on the BNL campus and the basics of the RHIC experiments. Our first stop was the PHENIX experiment.
This is, if I’m not mistaken Stefen Bathe, (more publications here) standing in front of the PHENIX detector. He’s explaining the experiment, which among other things is creating a Quark-gluon plasma, and fielding questions from other people on the tour (can this be used to generate energy? no. how loud are the collisions? silent. what practical benefit will this research have? possibly none. how do you turn it on? a team of scientists and engineers go in that control room over there and work for a few weeks. are you sure it’s completely silent? well, the air conditioners do make some noise).
PHENIX has lots of interesting stuff on its website, including this Java applet that lets you visualize the results of collisions (although one of the scientists seemed to imply that these visualizations are for PR purposes only and she really is only interested in crunching the raw data – “I’ve never looked at one of my collisions, actually”). Also, here are a series of games where you can try to run the collider yourself. If you get a high enough score, the results of your experiements enable time travel.
We spent a little more time at the STAR experiment. The goal of this experiement is… exactly the same as PHENIX! The two teams are in competition and are trying to beat each other to results, and also create the same findings with two different methods.
Here’s one of STAR’s gigantic detectors. I’m not sure but this may be part of the FORWARD TIME PROJECTION CHAMBER, which sounds really cool.
We also got to see the control room for STAR. It was full of racks of computers, which of course drew my interest. By the way if I’m not mistaken this is STAR’s entire CVS repository: here’s a commit somebody made just a few days ago. I guess this is the real stuff. Also, STAR: the weblog. Subscribed!
Science runs on Linux!
OK, also sometimes on Solaris. And Love.
A chilling sign. Toto asked the obvious question: “What do you think happened to Dennis?!?!?!” By the way, RHIC is the collider that was in the news a few years ago… remember BIG BANG MACHINE COULD DESTROY EARTH? The article stated that some crazy scientists were doing an expierment that could bring about the destruction of the Earth, or possibly even the ENTIRE UNIVERSE! I asked about this and yes, it was RHIC. I then asked if any of these events have occurred and was assured that no, they have not. I didn’t ask the obvious follow-up question involving the anthropomorphic principle and the many-worlds hypothesis. Here’s the report the lab issued: RHIC Speculative Disaster Scenarios.
I did resist the urge to try to turn it on myself.
I’m guessing that a magnet crash would be…. bad?
More serious looking stuff. I love switches behind doors, which is why I was never any good at Steel Battalion. That self-destruct switch was irresistable. (by the way, don’t bother with that IP address – it’s not pingable and a traceroute dies somewhere inside es.net.)
Posted in the control room.
The final stop on the tour took us into the accelerator tunnel. This tunnel contains two “pipes”, one with particles moving clockwise around the RHIC, the other counterclockwise. At six positions around the ring these pipes cross over, so that collisions (at 99.995% the speed of light!) are possible. At this point of the tour we got an extremely enthusiastic and technical description of exactly how the superconducting magnets guide the beam, and the various safety systems that keep the collider from destroying itself if anything goes wrong.
All in all, it was a great trip and completely worth the two hour drive out to long island. And the icing on the cake was that Jenny got to cross another resaurant off her TODO list, Momofuku. Nano-review: good!