Because Science

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Science is beautiful. If you stop to observe it.

It’s not just the results of experiments and their intrinsic  value that are gorgeous to see, it’s the structure and the mechanics of the science being done that are so delightful.

They are delightful, because so often we only read about the results. We never find out about the work that went into making the experiment.

Today I hit my friend Shane Caldwell up for a tour of Argonne National Laboratory, where he works as a nuclear physicist.

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Behind that concrete wall lies Blue Gene P, one of several generations of supercomputers used in many scientific applications.

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Shane took his time to walk the kids through the basic elements of physics, so they could better understand how amazing the facilities at Argonne really are.

Here he showed us a small version of the Advanced Photon Source, which is essentially a big flashlight scientists like to point at molecular actions by accelerating particles and then spray-painting them against a source to shed a new light on it, so to speak.

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It’s not CERN, but it’s certainly spectacular. To see science so displayed on the landscape is quite awesome. Much of science isn’t physically observable, but in the case of a particle accelerator, it is.

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A bend in the accelerator is almost sexy as functional design. To think of science as sexy is odd but not if you really think about it.

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The breakdown of particle accelerator into parts is reminiscent of high school or some other shared functionality.

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Shane keeps his notes in an old-fashioned notebook, which surprised me a little, but he said that no computer program is quite as functional as a good, old notebook.

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A periodic table of radioactivity. Artistic in its own sense. Complex and yet almost as beautiful as looking down into the valley at Glacier National Park. The kids were mesmerized by it all, and I was rather impressed with how interested in physics the boys were. Gabbers might be a little young for all of this, but she stayed with us the whole time.

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A simple visualization of a particle accelerator helped the kids visualize what they were about to see downstairs.

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An explanation of the Argonne Tandem Linear Accelerator System, which is a thing of evolving beauty. Science and engineering together in the basement of a building in Illinois, and yet the whole world benefits from the experiments going on here.

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Niobium is used in the accelerator because of its superconducting properties. And it’s just really fun to say. Niobium. Niobium. Niobium.

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The kids learn about uncle Shane’s current experiment. The only rule. Not touching. Keep your hands inside the ride at all times.

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Shane shows us how really pure copper is used as a gasket for the particle accelerator. To see not just the results of experiments but the experiments that it took to engineer the machines used to make the experiments possible is a real treat. Better than a thousand trips to OMSI or your favorite children’s museum, a trip to a national laboratory like Argonne is an amazing experience.

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A unit designed by Shane’s boss is where they collect the spray of matter induced by the beam. Huge electro magnets and specialized equipment harness an amazing amount of energy to allow scientists to understand the physical properties of some of the tiniest bits of stardust with which we and our world are made.

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Magnets were one of the highlights of the tour. An electro magnet makes for a fun workout when you add a couple of wrenches into the mix. The kids could’ve spent all day wrestling the powerful magnets.

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The gamma ray facility is where they filmed scenes from the “The Incredible Hulk.” They actually built their own model based on this original at a cost that was nearly as much as the original machine.

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A little lesson in liquid nitrogen. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable gasses known to mankind. Though Shane says that liquid Helium is actually more fun.

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Shane pours a little liquid nitrogen out for us, and we all delight as it dances and bubbles across the inferno that is our environment.

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The kids learned a lot today. They were stimulated by the magnitude of science, and that is amazingly valuable for me as a father who is merely curious about the world but who has no real ability to explain it.

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A couple of parting shots of the accelerator, the design of which really intrigued me throughout our tour today. It’s far beyond my own comprehension, and yet I can understand the concept through the forest of wires and pipes.

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The next generation gamma ray facility is a small picture of how Argonne National Laboratory is evolving. Small movements based on proven results. Piece by piece, until the science is proven.

For me it is a reassuring process. One that although behind the scenes, makes me feel good about our contribution to the world.

– T

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