Its that time of year again, I’ve been going to the Summer Sunday tours at Brookhaven National Laboratory, specifically I attended:
- Dazzling Light, Astounding Discoveries on July 22nd, this was a tour of the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS for short) facility, and it’s younger, bigger brother, the NSLS II currently under construction.
- Atom Smashing Fun on August 5th, this was a tour of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC for short, scientists sure love their acronyms!) facility, and the detector systems that they work with there.
The same weekend as the RHIC tour, I also went to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum with some old college buddies, and saw the Enterprise Space Shuttle prototype, as well as some of my favorite aircraft, and of course, the aircraft carrier itself!
And of course, I took a lot of photos! At the end of each section are four of my favorites, and a link to the albums hosting the rest. Note that NSLS and RHIC share an album. Also, for the RHIC and Intrepid trips, I made use of a new purchase: The RS-Sport 2 strap from Black Rapid. See the end of this post for my brief review of the strap.
National Synchrotron Light Source I & II
First up, the NSLS I/II tours! I took this tour with my old roommates Matt (no jokes please) and Allen. For Matt and myself (Don’t. Every joke, every pun, done to death. Seriously.) we had some expectations, because we had taken this tour last year, so for us there was a bar set pretty high.
In a nutshell, the NSLS facilities take bunches of electrons and accelerate them in to (relatively) tight circles, very very near the speed of the light. This causes a strong angular acceleration on the particles, which causes them to throw off the aptly named synchrotron radiation, which is energy all over the electromagnetic spectrum, such as X-rays. This is used to study very small things, things that cannot be otherwise observed because visible light particles are too large to resolve the details being sought out. The big benefits of these machines is that they provide a (relatively) wide spectrum of light, at a fairly constant level.
So, compared to last year, this years tours fell a little flat for Matt and I, mainly due to the increased brevity and considerable lower depth of detail involved. Last year, the tour guides at both the NSLS and NSLS II were very enthusiastic, and extremely informative. This year things were busier, more crowded, much higher level and much more brief. For example, when we took the NSLS I tour last year, our tour was over an hour, and involved a very scientifically inclined group, and a very chatty guide. He answered a lot of questions, got in to a lot of detail of the experiments and how it all worked. He also gave us a great tour of the control room while they were doing an injection of electrons. This year, the tour of the NSLS was about 8 minutes! Also, involved several younger guests that I think were only there for the air conditioning. While very enthusiastic, and quite talented, our tour guide gave us a pretty high level, simplified overview of the whole place. The NSLS II showroom was also quite a bit more crowded than last year, and in general the whole event was very busy this year, compared to last year. While I am happy the lab is gaining more recognition, it is a little frustrating after having the place basically to our nerdy selves last year.
I think the increased crowds, lower detail and generally less engaging environments were not only related, but I think they share some common causes:
- No age recommendation - Last year, the NSLS and RHIC tours included a disclaimer that it was recommended for ages 10+. This year, only the RHIC had that indicator, and as such there were a lot of children at the NSLS sites. This means increased crowds, and much more focus on entertaining children. Now don’t get me wrong, I like kids, but I think the whole concept of the NSLS facilities whizzed right past them. As such, it really didn’t have much of an impact on them, but it did affect our visit unfortunately.
- No barrier to entry on the NSLS I Tour – Last year, there was a little quiz/raffle thing going on to get tickets for the tour of the NSLS I facility. It was easy, it was quick and they gave out tickets fairly freely. However, you had to want to see the NSLS, and be interested in the facility and put in a little effort to get there. This filters out 95% of the people who would take the tour just because they can. This year, the tour was open to the public as another stop along the way. Combine that with the increased crowds, and small children that aren’t terribly interested in the nerdy details, and you get a quick gloss over instead of an in-depth tour.
Despite this, it was still a really interesting tour, and very nice to see the progress of the construction. In the NSLS II facility we did manage to wrangle some wonderful nerd talk out of some of the staff there. Here are some of my favorite photos:
Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider
Next tour, this actually happened after the Intrepid visit described below, but I think it makes sense right after the NSLS section. The RHIC is a perpetually awesome machine, it takes heavy ions (like gold, or now uranium) and accelerates them up very near the speed of light (the guys at Brookhaven seem to like the speed of light) and then slams them in to each other, causing a surprisingly small, but very effective explosion that simulates the Big Bang pretty effectively. These collisions occur at several points around the ring, at different detector sites. The detectors are large sets of scientific instruments of varying types surrounding the collision zone, which detect (hence the name) the results of the collisions.
The tour consisted of buses running guests between the two open detector sites and one of the tunnel entrances. It was a very enjoyable tour, and like NSLS, was one we had taken last year as well. While the detectors featured this year were the same as the ones featured last year, there was some new developments and new configurations of the equipment to see, so it didn’t feel like a rehash. Unfortunately, I do feel the quality of this tour was also somewhat compromised by the crowds, but not to the degree the NSLS tours were. The tour guides were very informative and answered a number of very interesting questions, including some excellent technical specifics, it just felt a bit crowded.
One of the more interesting things about the RHIC operation, is how they use liquid helium to cool the magnets and make them superconductive. Superconductive means the circuit has zero electrical resistance, and is a very unique and difficult to produce quality. This is important because magnets require a very high amount of electric current to generate the magnetic fields required, and electrical resistance not only limits current flow, it causes high current flow to create a lot of heat. Heat makes materials (generally) less conductive, thus increasing the amount of energy lost to heat, causing the material to get hotter…. this is a pretty vicious cycle that often ends with severely damaging the machine. Because of this, it is very important to keep the magnets very very cool, and they have a dedicated refrigeration utility that works full time to sustain those temperatures. Superconducting materials are very cool, and efforts to make them work without requiring dedicated cooling are going on right now. Superconducting wires would revolutionize the way the power grid is designed in countries around the world. Currently, distribution of power from generating stations is limited to the power plants local geographic reason, because the further it has to travel through (non-superconducting) wires, the more energy lost to heat, meaning lower efficiency. It becomes impractical to move a lot of power very far, and limits the effective distribution of power around the world. If wires can be made that were passively superconductive (not requiring support cooling) and cost-effective, electrical power could be generated anywhere and brought wherever it was needed. In addition to increasing the efficiency of power grids in general, it allows more natural power sources to be tapped without them needing to be conveniently located by power consuming civilization.
The other really cool thing about the RHICs functionality is how they observe what is happening. Since the collisions are occurring somewhat randomly, and are very fleeting, they are just about impossible to observe or record directly. Instead the detector sites record everything that happens in the area immediately around the collision, classifying what types of particles and energy are released by the event. Then powerful computers trace these recorded events caused by the collision and backtrack them to predict a model of what the collision was like. This generates an enormous amount of information, that is constantly filtered, tagged and categorized for later study. The computers can also recognize rare events and give them a higher priority billing so they can be analyzed sooner. These functions all happen at the various detectors, each one targeted at observing different types of events.
All in all, another great tour at Brookhaven, and a very enjoyable event, filled with a lot of lovely nerd talking, and some great photo ops!
Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum
This trip was one of my favorites, because while giant atom smashing machines are cool, and flinging electrons is excellent, nothing compares to the wonder of flight for me. I find it fascinating the way we continually devise more and more clever and capable machines to carry us through the skies, and through space. It’s a rush to see the way history has progressed walking through the museum, starting with the propeller driven warplanes and old space capsules below decks, and then seeing the modern jet fighters and the Space Shuttle on the flight deck.
Some of my favorite sites were the old space capsules, including the mock up of a Mercury capsule that Allen and I climbed in for a fun photo op. Another excellent sight was of the Optical Landing System on display below decks. This used a curved mirror and a series of light indicators to guide pilots in to a landing on the carrier deck. The curved mirror had a light shown on it from off axis, and everything was aligned so a plane lined up with the runway, on the right glide slope, would see the ball centered in the mirror (so that’s what “call the ball” means…). If the plane was too high or low, or not lined up with the runway, the balls reflection moved appropriately in the mirror to let the pilot know which direction was off and how far. The demonstration on the Intrepid has points marked on the floor so you can see what it looks like as you line up and move around with the mirror.
After exploring below decks for a while, we enjoyed the view from the back deck, and then moved up to the flight deck to see the jets, and of course, the Space Shuttle pavilion. I enjoyed the jets, especially the venerable SR-71 Blackbird, and the iconic F-14 Tomcat, and took in quite a few shots of the aircraft and the carrier structure. Then we entered the Shuttle pavilion.
First off, it was rather warm, and humid, and dark in there. The first two are just uncomfortable, the third makes photography quite difficult, especially since that day I was packing my 24-105mm, a beautifully sharp lens, but only f/4.0 at it’s widest, so I had to push the ISO and make liberal use of flash. Despite these difficulties, I got some nice (albeit tight) shots of the Shuttle and inside of the pavilion, and a shot of me with the Shuttle in the background (Whoo!). All in all, worth the hassle, and the travel to see, and I am very excited to see the Shuttle again when the new permanent exhibit is completed.
New strap: RS-Sport 2
As I mentioned above, for the RHIC and Intrepid trips, I was trying out a new strap for my camera. I found the factory Canon neck strap to be uncomfortable after extended use, especially when something hefty like my 25-105mm on the camera. A coworker recommended the Black Rapid straps to me, and specifically the RS-Sport 2, and the Internet agreed, so I ordered one. As a sling strap, it distributes the cameras weight across your shoulders and back, instead of tugging at your neck. It also mounts to the tripod screw on the body, so it is easy to disconnect if you want to for any reason.
The point where the camera connects to the strap is on a sliding buckle, and the strap has adjustable stops that you position near your should and hip, and the camera can then easily slide anywhere along that path. This means its very fast and quick to lift to shoot a photo, and then you can just lower it to your hip where it rests comfortably until you need it again. The strap feels very secure, and well made, and I trust it with the weight of my camera without hesitation.
As far as comfort goes, I find the strap makes a massive difference in carrying the camera, it makes the weight almost disappear, reduces strain significantly, and I feel safer with the camera down to the side then hanging over my chest. It is also very easy to scoot the camera up a bit and lay on your leg if you want to sit. The strap is not bulky, and while a little awkward to put on until you get used to it, is easy enough to forget you have on. It fits comfortable under the straps of my backpack, so I can wear the RS-2 and my normal daypack easily with no troubles at all. At an MSRP of $69.95, it may seem pricey, but I think it is really quite worth the cost, you’ll make up the savings in Advil once you eliminate that neck strain!
Well, here ends another round of great trips, fun adventures and a visit from my old roommates. I hope you enjoyed my stories about the tours and museums and took a look at all the photos posted. Coming up in September is my Disney vacation, and Maker Faire NYC 2012, which means more adventures, and more photos!