MY BOOK CHAPTER! The architecture of Fermilab

I’m a science writer by profession (obviously), but occasionally I get the chance to write about something fun that’s only tangentially related to science. A while back, Belt Publishers — which publishes books and a magazine about the part of the American Midwest known as the Rust Belt — solicited pitches for chapters on a book about Midwestern architecture, and I sent them (shhh) a portion of my book I couldn’t get published. Belt liked what I sent them, and the result is I have a chapter in the forthcoming anthology Midwestern Architectural Journeys (edited by Zach Mortice), available October 15, 2019!

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When Brilliant Physicists Toiled Under a Beer-Can Roof

The inspired and eccentric design of a hub of Cold War physics research, the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Illinois

One thing I didn’t have space to write about: one of the physicists who led an experiment at Fermilab was neighbor to New Yorker cartoonist George Booth. Their friendship led to Booth designing a mascot for the experiment, which ultimately wasn’t used, but still graces the outside of one of the buildings. [Credit: moi]

Chapter excerpt published by CityLab:

I didn’t come to the prosaically named Silicon Detector building for its roof. I was there to look at some cutting-edge telescope technology, soon to be implemented at one of the world’s leading observatories. But here I was looking up at the interior of a funky squashed geodesic dome, constructed of triangles in muted reds, blues, and golds, like an electron micrograph of a virus built of stained glass by Buckminster Fuller.

The Silicon Detector (or SiDet) building itself is a squat concrete structure with sloping sides and a trapezoidal profile, a distinctly 1970s structure. The geometric dome originally was intended to be a patriotic red, white, and blue, but time has faded it into autumnal colors. The panels are made out of recycled beer and soda cans with their ends cut off, arranged between two sheets of colored plastic reinforced with glass. Light shines through the cans, but not so brightly as to create a glare.

The SiDet building is all the more striking for what and where it is: It’s a physics lab devoted to the fabrication of next-generation detectors for experiments and telescopes. More specifically, SiDet was originally part of a facility meant to study neutrinos: very fast-moving, low-mass particles that are notoriously hard to detect. Similarly, the facility itself is hidden from the general public’s view behind a security perimeter on the grounds of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, more commonly known as Fermilab.

[Read the rest at Citylab, and order the book from Belt]

Forging dark matter in the Big Bang

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The origins of dark matter

Theorists think dark matter was forged in the hot aftermath of the Big Bang

For Symmetry Magazine:

Transitions are everywhere we look. Water freezes, melts, or boils; chemical bonds break and form to make new substances out of different arrangements of atoms. The universe itself went through major transitions in early times. New particles were created and destroyed continually until things cooled enough to let them survive.

Those particles include ones we know about, such as the Higgs boson or the top quark. But they could also include dark matter, invisible particles which we presently know only because of their gravitational effects.

In cosmic terms, dark matter particles could be a “thermal relic,” forged in the hot early universe and then left behind during the transitions to more moderate later eras. One of these transitions, known as “freeze-out,” changed the nature of the whole universe. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

Information ain’t no good if you can’t get to it

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The most important website in particle physics

The first website to be hosted in the US has grown to be an invaluable hub for open science

For Symmetry Magazine:

With tens of thousands of particle physicists working in the world today, the biggest challenge a researcher can have is keeping track of what everyone else is doing. The articles they write, the collaborations they form, the experiments they run—all of those things are part of being current. After all, high-energy particle physics is a big enterprise, not the province of a few isolated people working out of basement laboratories.

Particle physicists have a tool that helps them with that. The INSPIRE database allows scientists to search for published papers by topic, author, scholarly journal, what previous papers the authors cited and which newer papers have used it as a reference.

“I don’t know any other discipline with such a central tool as INSPIRE,” says Sünje Dallmeier-Tiessen, an information scientist at CERN who manages INSPIRE’s open-access initiative. If you’re a high-energy physicist, “everything that relates to your daily work-life, you can find there.” [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

The lowdown on the highest energy light

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Incredible hulking facts about gamma rays

From lightning to the death of electrons, the highest-energy form of light is everywhere

For Symmetry Magazine:

Gamma rays are the most energetic type of light, packing a punch strong enough to pierce through metal or concrete barriers. More energetic than X-rays, they are born in the chaos of exploding stars, the annihilation of electrons and the decay of radioactive atoms. And today, medical scientists have a fine enough control of them to use them for surgery. Here are seven amazing facts about these powerful photons. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

The search for a “theory of everything”

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All four one and one for all

A theory of everything would unite the four forces of nature, but is such a thing possible?

For Symmetry Magazine:

Over the centuries, physicists have made giant strides in understanding and predicting the physical world by connecting phenomena that look very different on the surface.

One of the great success stories in physics is the unification of electricity and magnetism into the electromagnetic force in the 19th century. Experiments showed that electrical currents could deflect magnetic compass needles and that moving magnets could produce currents.

Then physicists linked another force, the weak force, with that electromagnetic force, forming a theory of electroweak interactions. Some physicists think the logical next step is merging all four fundamental forces—gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force and the strong force—into a single mathematical framework: a theory of everything.

Those four fundamental forces of nature are radically different in strength and behavior. And while reality has cooperated with the human habit of finding patterns so far, creating a theory of everything is perhaps the most difficult endeavor in physics. [Read the rest at Symmetry]

Are neutrinos their own worst enemies?

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EXO-200 resumes its underground quest

The upgraded experiment aims to discover if neutrinos are their own antiparticles

For Symmetry Magazine:

Science is often about serendipity: being open to new results, looking for the unexpected.

The dark side of serendipity is sheer bad luck, which is what put the Enriched Xenon Observatory experiment, or EXO-200, on hiatus for almost two years.

Accidents at the Department of Energy’s underground Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico, kept researchers from continuing their search for signs of neutrinos and their antimatter pairs. Designed as storage for nuclear waste, the site had both a fire and a release of radiation in early 2014 in a distant part of the facility from where the experiment is housed. No one at the site was injured. Nonetheless, the accidents, and the subsequent efforts of repair and remediation, resulted in a nearly two-year suspension of the EXO-200 effort.

Things are looking up now, though: Repairs to the affected area of the site are complete, new safety measures are in place, and scientists are back at work in their separate area of the site, where the experiment is once again collecting data. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine….]

The GUTsy effort to unify the quantum forces

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A GUT feeling about physics

Scientists want to connect the fundamental forces of nature in one Grand Unified Theory

For Symmetry Magazine:

The 1970s were a heady time in particle physics. New accelerators in the United States and Europe turned up unexpected particles that theorists tried to explain, and theorists in turn predicted new particles for experiments to hunt. The result was the Standard Model of particles and interactions, a theory that is essentially a catalog of the fundamental bits of matter and the forces governing them.

While that Standard Model is a very good description of the subatomic world, some important aspects—such as particle masses—come out of experiments rather than theory.

“If you write down the Standard Model, quite frankly it’s a mess,” says John Ellis, a particle physicist at King’s College London. “You’ve got a whole bunch of parameters, and they all look arbitrary. You can’t convince me that’s the final theory!” [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…]

Some light reading about light

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As I mentioned before, I’m branching out a bit and writing some listicles for Symmetry Magazine this year. The first covered gravity, and the second covers… light!

Eight things you might not know about light

Light is all around us, but how much do you really know about the photons speeding past you?

For Symmetry Magazine:

1. Photons can produce shock waves in water or air, similar to sonic booms.

Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. However, light slows down in air, water, glass and other materials as photons interact with atoms, which has some interesting consequences.

The highest-energy gamma rays from space hit Earth’s atmosphere moving faster than the speed of light in air. These photons produce shock waves in the air, much like a sonic boom, but the effect is to make more photons instead of sound. Observatories like VERITAS in Arizona look for those secondary photons, which are known as Cherenkov radiation. Nuclear reactors also exhibit Cherenkov light in the water surrounding the nuclear fuel. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…]

A new detector in the hunt for particles and the origin of matter

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Belle II and the matter of antimatter

Go inside the new detector looking for why we’re here

For Symmetry Magazine:

We live in a world full of matter: stars made of matter, planets made of matter, pizza made of matter. But why is there pizza made of matter rather than pizza made of antimatter or, indeed, no pizza at all?

In the first split-second after the big bang, the universe made a smidgen more matter than antimatter. Instead of matter and antimatter annihilating one another and leaving an empty, cold universe, we ended up with a surplus of stuff. Now scientists need the most sensitive detectors and mountains of experimental data to understand where that imbalance comes from.

Belle II is one of those detectors that will look for differences between matter and antimatter to explain why we’re here at all. Currently under construction, the 7.5-meter-long detector will be installed in the newly recommissioned SuperKEKB particle accelerator located in Tsukuba, Japan. SuperKEKB runs beams of electrons and positrons (the antimatter version of electrons) into each other at close to the speed of light, and Belle II—once it is fully operational in 2018—will analyze the detritus of the collisions. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…]

Why are neutrino masses so tiny?

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Neutrinos on a seesaw

A possible explanation for the lightness of neutrinos could help answer some big questions about the universe.

For Symmetry Magazine:

Mass is a fundamental property of matter, but there’s still a lot about it we don’t understand—especially when it comes to the strangely tiny masses of neutrinos.

An idea called the seesaw mechanism proposes a way to explain the masses of these curious particles. If shown to be correct, it could help us understand a great deal about the nature of fundamental forces and—maybe—why there’s more matter than antimatter in the universe today. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine….]