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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My First Particle Accelerator

No, this isn't a sneak-peak at this year's Christmas must-have on the toy shelves*: I'm talking about my first visit to a particle accelerator.

My new job role** has seen me doing some interesting things that I simply didn't get the opportunity to even think about as a teacher. This evening I headed over to Diamond Light Source in Didcot, Oxfordshire, as they were hosting a STEM ambassador networking event. It was an excellent opportunity to meet professionals and educators in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and I feel I've made some connections that could grow into mutually useful relationships. But that's not the point of this post...

Diamond Light Source is the UK's only synchrotron science facility. In short they Do Science by way of accelerating electrons to relativistic speeds, using the resultant beams of light (at wavelengths from infrared to X-ray) to conduct various academic and industrial research projects. If you're not sure what that all means, it's a big silver doughnut visible from the A34:


View Larger Map

At the end of the networking event we were given the opportunity to be taken on a tour of the facility. After hesitating for approximately no fractions of a second I tore myself away from the possibility of spending my evening doing nothing at all and leapt with childish glee (in my mind, at least) after our tour guide, the knowledgeable and engaging Laura Holland.

Standing on top of the Diamond Synchrotron, the yellow line on the floor traces the path that electrons follow below,
kept on the right track by powerful electromagnets
The tour was great: I've never visited a particle accelerator before, so it was all I could do to stop myself running around like a small child in a sweet shop. Even though you can't see the actual particle acceleratory stuff, there's a lot to be said for standing in a building that's humming with the promise of science happening all around you. The tour takes in the synchrotron itself, plus examples of the kind of things that are down below doing the business, including electromagnet setups, which I forgot to take photos of because my brain was geeksploding. There are whistlestops at computer banks, spare sections of particle track, and machines that run tests on the results of experiments, all interspersed with facts, figures and comments on the general running of the establishment.

If you're at all enticed by the thought of the things I'm saying, go.

This is a nitrogen outlet. Or a spaceship exhaust: you choose.
Laura is also Diamond Light Source's Public Engagement Manager, which means she's the one to chat to if you want to visit, or if you want her to visit you (she does Outreach stuff too). Her details are on the Education part of their site. If you're a school and you're interested in visiting, there's a page for Post-16 Open Days, and Open Days for the public are detailed right here. I may have to sign up so I can take my proper camera along!




* Though, thinking about it, wouldn't that be cool...?
** I'll write a post about my new job at some point.