You may be wondering to yourself, what right does a 26 year old graduate student have to write an autobiographical blog, among so many others who choose to embark on the same path of internet-based journaling? I asked myself that very question. But I have struggled through some things which are not unique to science, and some which are, and I hope that in passing along my own experiences and thoughts on them, perhaps I can make a difference to someone else.
The best way to begin, I suppose, is to describe life at a national lab. People seem to have this image burned into their brains of a bearded and bespectacled scientist, donned in a white lab coat with clipboard in hand, shuffling about his myriad of expensive and complicated looking instruments and test tubes filled with various colors of liquids boiling away. This is precisely how a national lab is not. If it was at all possible to describe the actual interior of the typical building on a national lab campus, I think the following anecdote would help give an idea.
The tandem accelerator at the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility (HRIBF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a 25 megavolt (25 million volt), 6-story tall metal tower inside of a similarly giant tank of sulfur hexafluoride. This enormous Van de Graff generator is used to accelerate beams of ionized particles to energies around those found inside of stars and supernovae. The US Department of Energy puts a quota on a large, money-grubbing piece of equipment such as this, requiring that it run a certain number of hours each calendar year as a user's facility. So how does one keep the tandem clean and running well? By enticing a group of a half-dozen foolish young graduate students and post docs with the promise of donuts to climb inside the tank, ride the elevator to the top of the tower, and slowly work their way back down while wiping the sides of the tower with 409 and paper towels. Exactly my point.
The lab in which I spend most of my time is one of the beamlines coming off of this tandem. The Daresbury Recoil Separator (DRS) is my home away from home, so to speak. In a back room which can only be reached via a rather long, narrow, poorly insulated and oft flooded hallway, tons of metal in the form of vacuum pumps, beamlines and giant electromagnets sit on a bare concrete floor. Black cables run from one side of the room to the other like a giant spider's web across the ceiling. Every flat or useful workspace is covered to within an inch of its life by spare parts, boxes of bolts, computers, extra cables, a multitude of tools, and of course the ubiquitous blue surgeon's gloves used for work with radioactive materials. The DRS can be attached to the output of the tandem, such that the accelerated radioactive beams can be sent into a pre-chosen target, and the resulting spray of protons, deuterons, tritons, alpha particles and heavy recoils can be detected, measured and analyzed. It is, in a sense, a laboratory simulation of what takes place every day in stars like the Sun or supernovae like the one which exploded in 1987. Along with a full-time support staff of operators, computer geeks, machinists, electricians, bureaucrats and health physicists, the research staff, post docs and graduate students who use the DRS facility, like myself, spend most of our time here experimenting. I have been coming and going from the lab here, for a week or two at a time, since the summer of 2005, and finally moved here full time to complete my PhD research in January of 2007. Before that, I completed my undergraduate BSc degree in engineering physics, left for a semester to pursue astronomy, then returned, bored out of my mind, to the applied physics PhD program at my undergraduate institution. Since, as a small university, we have limited resources to run our own experiments, we collaborate with places like TRIUMF in Vancouver, Los Alamos, Argonne, and ORNL. Which is why I'm here.
But there is something else that goes on here as well. Something much more fundamental even than the science which surrounds us daily. It is basic human dynamics. I'm learning, finally, to truly appreciate those dynamics, and my place in them.
And that is what I hope to elucidate.
5 days ago