FUSIONISTA: Notes from the landscape of the National Labs
I know I am lucky — part of my job is to occasionally visit my colleagues at other DOE National Laboratories, where I get to meet some of the best scientists in the world and, equally exciting, view their top-notch, one-of-a-kind, supercool equipment.
Earlier this month, I was able to visit Dean Golembeski, director of public affairs at The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, a place we call “JLab,” mainly so we can converse about it without overly cluttering up our sentences. JLab was kind enough to host a meeting of a group of chief communications officers from all of the DOE’s National Labs.
Like the researchers at PPPL, the scientists at JLab are after big game. Physicists there are exploring the innermost realm of matter — the nucleus of the atom. They think of their work, in the words of accelerator physicist Steve Suhring, as applying a “giant microscope” to nature. Their goal is to discover the origins of matter, improving our understanding of its building blocks and identifying the forces that transform it. It’s a lofty goal and a perfect one for a National Lab, where scientists explore basic research for the good of the U.S. and humanity. But how, precisely, do JLab scientists study something as infinitesimal as a nucleus, located at the center of the atom, a speck in itself?
Allow me to show you how JLab does it.
Here, JLab staff scientist Ari Palczewski explains how scientists construct all the basic elements they need to make their accelerator, including supercold vacuum devices known as “cryomodules” and a giant microscope called Cyclops:
JLab accelerator physicist Steve Suhring gives one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of how an accelerator works, using a mere whiteboard:
Scientists at JLab may be peering into the ultrasmall, but they definitely think big.
Here’s a High Resolution Magnetic Spectrometer that uses electrons to examine matter more closely. It’s a whopper, weighing in at 240 tons:
And here is physicist Steve Suhring guiding me and a group of my colleagues deep underground in the long corridor that parallels the accelerator track:
We know that so many of the modern marvels we take for granted — cell phones, MRI machines, cancer medications — would never have existed without fundamental scientific research. Leaving JLab, I find myself grateful for the efforts of everyone there and all of the National Labs, toiling to learn and benefit all.
Fusionista Kitta MacPherson is the director of communications at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and an award-winning science writer.
A self portrait of fusion physicist Glen Wurden (from Los Alamos) taken in infrared wavelengths (3-5 microns), using a new state-of-the art infrared camera (FLIR Systems SC8303HD). This camera was tested on Alcator C-Mod in Sept 2012, and will be used as part of the American/German collaboration on the new W7-X stellarator under construction in Germany, as a diagnostic to view the protective armor tiles on the vacuum vessel. The armor tiles get heated due to plasma-wall interactions.
PPPL Director Stewart Prager described a host of scientific activities at the Lab during a talk at the annual Fusion Power Associates (FPA) meeting held in Washington, D.C. Steve Dean, the executive director of FPA, can be seen to his left. (Photo credit: Kitta MacPherson, PPPL Office of Communications)
By Kitta MacPherson
Graduate student Hongyue Wang discussed her work on plasmas in Hall thrusters with University of Michigan professor Mark Kushner during the third annual meeting of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Plasma Science Center at PPPL. Wang, a student at Beihang University in Beijing, works with PPPL physicist Igor Kaganovich. Kushner directs the Plasma Science Center. (Photo credit: Elle Starkman, PPPL Office of Communications.)
More than 50 participants from a dozen U.S. research institutions gathered at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) May 17-18 for the third annual meeting of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Plasma Science Center. The meeting featured papers on low-temperature plasmas, whose practical applications range from lighting to nanotechnology. Events at the session included a display of graduate student posters and a tour of PPPL.
More than 800 scientists. Nearly 5,000 students.
That’s how many people are involved in what ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer has called “the most inspired contest on the planet.”
In March, actor Alan Alda wrote a provocative editorial in the renowned journal Science. The title of his column, “The Flame Challenge,” described how he, as an 11-year-old, stared at a candle flame and wondered what it was. He wasn’t looking for overly simple answers – he wanted a step-by-step style of conversation that would lead to understanding. When he queried one teacher he thought he could approach, he received a disappointing answer. “What’s a flame?” he asked. “Oxidation,” she said. Many decades later, he sees this continuing failure to properly communicate science as a society-wide problem.
For years, he has been doing his part to address that problem by hosting “Scientific American Frontiers” on public television. In the show, Alda interviews scientists about their work, helping them explain their research to intelligent non-scientists. Now, as a member of the faculty at the Center for Communicating Science at the State University of Stony Brook on Long Island, Alda has launched his own experiment. He announced the Flame Challenge contest (http://flamechallenge.org) in Science, asking scientists, educators, and students to submit short videos, essays or effective communications by any other means to explain the simple question he asked as a boy.
Andrew Zwicker, a physicist at PPPL who heads science education, came up with a version of the answer, working with Aliya Merali. You can view it here:
Submissions, which were due on April 2, have poured in from all over the world. According to a story on the website of the Center for Communicating Science, participants submitted 822 entries from the U.S. and 30 other countries. The entries range from a sentence to tomes and from poetry – one poem is written in the shape of a flame – to live-action videos with special effects. Once volunteer scientists screen the submissions for accuracy, the entries are being sent to schools where 11-year-olds at more than 130 schools will judge them. The finalists will be posted on flamechallenge.org, and the winner will be announced at the World Science Festival in New York, New York in early June.
— Kitta MacPherson
Let it snow! Scientists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory are using a novel device called a “snowflake divertor” to keep superhot gases from damaging the walls of a nuclear reactor during experiments to develop a safe, clean and virtually limitless fuel for producing electric power.
The program runs January through March, and is free and open to the public. Lectures begin promptly at 9:30 AM. Click here for the Science on Saturday 2012 schedule.