Monday, September 13, 2010

"Down to a Science"

By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to write a newspaper column, but sometimes it helps to be a nuclear physicist.

Aside from realizing that I’m not smart enough to be either, which is why I write a newspaper column, that’s the lesson I learned recently after my wife, Sue, and I went on a tour of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.

We were among the approximately 1,800 people who saw the lab that day as part of Brookhaven’s Sunday Summer Tours. The program allows the public to view virtually every major part of the sprawling laboratory, which is operated in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy and has won seven Nobel Prizes.

Our group was welcomed by nuclear physicist Phil Pile, who said, “The world’s most perfect liquid was discovered here.”

“Wow!” I whispered to Sue. “They’re going to serve beer.”

No such luck. Phil was referring to a type of matter thought to have existed microseconds after the Big Bang. This means, I guess, that it was microbrewed.

The Big Bang is the prevailing cosmological theory of how the universe was created and is not to be confused with the Big Band, from which popular music was created.

Brookhaven is famous for the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, aka RHIC, pronounced Rick, which makes the laboratory Rick’s Place. “Of all the lab joints in all the towns in all the world, you had to walk into ours,” Phil didn’t say to the group.

He did say, however, that RHIC, where the origin of the universe is studied, is the first machine capable of colliding ions as heavy as gold.

“Maybe I’ll get some jewelry out of this,” Sue suggested.

Phil said that accelerated particles in RHIC have been known to travel 700 million miles per hour, which is almost as fast as some drivers go on Interstate 95 or the Long Island Expressway.

Phil also talked about protons and neutrons, though he didn’t mention morons, probably because he didn’t want to embarrass me. But he didn’t spare Albert Einstein (e equals MC Hammer), who was shown in a photo riding a bicycle without a helmet. “Not very smart,” Phil said.

Our group then got on a bus headed for STAR, one of two detectors we would see. STAR stands for Solenoidal Tracker At Relativistic. Xian Li, a brilliant doctorate student, told us how heavy ions are smashed together in a structure that looks like a huge roulette wheel. Even more brilliant was a 12-year-old girl named Mikaela Egbert, who showed me how to use my cell phone to take pictures.

Our next stop was the other detector, PHENIX, which stands for Pioneering High Energy Nuclear Interactions eXperiment. Aside from not being in Arizona, PHENIX also is where scientists collide heavy ions. Protons are collided in both detectors as well.

The last stop was the Tunnel, where an accelerator physicist named Mei Bai said the lab spends $600 million on parts.

“Do you go to Home Depot?” I inquired.

“When we need ladders,” she responded.

Accelerator physicist Todd Satogata talked about the Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor, or BGRR. “It’s affectionately known as Booger,” he said.

Our group was given a tour by Guillaume Robert-Demolaize, an accelerator physicist who also happens to be my future son-in-law. He is even smarter than that 12-year-old girl and will one day win the Nobel Prize. You read it here first.

“This is where the magic happens,” said Guillaume, adding: “The person who asks the best question wins a T-shirt.”

“Can you use E-ZPass in this tunnel?” I asked.

I didn’t win the shirt.

But Guillaume gave a winning presentation, which included a detailed description of the 2.4-mile-long tunnel’s two concentric rings, which are made up of 1,740 superconducting magnets. “They’re not the kind you put on your refrigerator door,” he said.

After the tour, Sue said, “This was like being with Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

The whole day was fun and fascinating. The best thing I learned is that, when it comes to riding a bike without a helmet, Albert Einstein was no smarter than me.

Copyright 2010 by Jerry Zezima

1 comment:

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

Yes, the lack of a helmet explains a lot for you! lol.
Loved it, Jerry, you nut.