Dispatches From The Particle Accelerator

Back in January, I was presented with a unique opportunity: the chance to walk inside of a particle accelerator.

And I was really really excited about it.

The tour was part of Yale’s Science Studies Lunch series. The brainchild of AmericanScience alum Joanna Radin and Bill Rankin, both Assistant Professors in the Program for the History of Science and Medicine at Yale, these monthly events bring together an interdisciplinary crowd of historians, sociologists, scientists, medical practitioners, and artists: anyone remotely interested in the social study of science. In a series of field trips, we have explored scientific collections, museums, labs, farms, and, on one day in January, a particle accelerator.

The installation of the original accelerator, 1965

Part of Yale’s Wright Lab, the Van de Graaf particle accelerator is in the process of being decommissioned. Originally installed in the mid-1960s, the atom smasher made Yale a national hub for the study of nuclear particle physics. At 100 feet long, the machine is dwarfed by the mammoth particle accelerators in operation today (for comparison, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva is 17 miles long). But at the time of the accelerator’s last upgrade in 1987, it was the highest-energy tandem accelerator in the world.

The installation of the new tandem accelerator, 1985.

Note the yellow exterior – the tank was promptly painted blue for purposes of school spirit.

From the outside, the accelerator looks unremarkable. Nestled in the side of a grassy knoll on campus (in an area known as Science Hill), the only outward clue of what lies beneath is a formidable set of double doors plastered with a “Security Notice.” The accelerator is so unremarkable, in fact, that I lived two blocks away from it and walked by it every day for three years without ever noticing it was there. We postulated that the grassy camouflage was a strategy to keep the lab hidden from view, or perhaps served as a shield for radiation. But the lab’s director, Karsten Heeger, assured us that he knew of no particular reason that the accelerator was placed underground other than an apocryphal story that the lab’s original director didn’t want his graduate students to have windows (sigh).

Realizing that I had lived in such close proximity to the lab made it even more exciting to explore the particle accelerator at my own doorstep. Here is what I took away as three of the most interesting themes of our conversation.

The Challenge of Commemoration 

As the accelerator is decommissioned, the Wright Lab is making a concerted effort to commemorate the occasion and to preserve the accelerator’s historical legacy. Back in November, the lab held a open house that attracted over 700 people from across Connecticut. Long lineups of visitors waited out in the cold for their chance to tour the accelerator before it is dismantled. As one employee explained, this kind of public outreach wasn’t possible while the accelerator was still operational, because there was rarely a moment when the facility wasn’t being used to run experiments. But the lab has relished the opportunity to finally let the public in to explore the accelerator, and have proven receptive to alternative uses for the space. For example, local artists are organizing an exhibition that will take advantage of the unique setting. There has also been “at least one” skateboarder who has used the accelerator as a half-pipe.

As a historian, I was impressed by the lab’s sensitivity to issues of historical preservation. The lab is working with history of science Professor Paola Bertucci, who is also the Assistant Curator of the Historical Scientific Instruments Collection, to preserve key artifacts and eventually build an exhibit commemorating the accelerator in conjunction with the Peabody Museum of Natural History. We discussed the challenges inherent in preserving an experimental apparatus that takes up more than 14,000 square feet of space As I snapped pictures with my phone, I quickly realized that photography was an insufficient medium for capturing the size of the machine, and the sense of awe it entails. So how do we preserve a sense of scale? One suggestion was to project and then paint an outline of the accelerator onto the wall. This way, future visitors to the lab will be able to see the accelerator’s footprint long after it disappears.

The group inside the accelerator. I’m there too!

Photo Credit: Charlotte Abney

I wondered aloud if the accelerator might not be preserved as is (or at least in part) for future museum goers to walk through and experience just as our group did. I had in mind my visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum last summer, where life-sized models of space shuttles and airplanes hang from the ceiling and can be explored by the museum’s visitors. It was explained, however, that the accelerator and its scientific paraphernalia had to be taken apart because it is being parceled off to various institutions around the country. In fact, because the accelerator was partly funded by the federal government, Yale doesn’t actually own all of the equipment and therefore doesn’t control what happens to it. If the equipment can still be used to conduct “useful science,” it will be recycled and repurposed. I think there is much more to say about the idea of recycling in science, and the ways in which “outdated” technologies can have long and varied scientific careers of their own.

Heeger also explained how the spirit of the lab’s history will be preserved in the new designs for the Wright Laboratory, which will be renovated following the accelerator’s removal. The accelerator’s centrality in the lab meant that generations of Yale students received hands-on training in the design, construction, and maintenance of equipment. The lab hopes to keep this hands-on training as a fundamental part of student life by building a workshop for designing and building detectors for use at other major research sites. Even for theoretical physicists, these mechanical skills are a crucial part of the research endeavor.

Maintenance, Repair, and the Invisible Labor of Big Science

My favorite part of the trip was hearing from Frank Lopez, the lab’s Research Development Technician. He described the day-to-day operations of the accelerator, and the challenges of keeping such a complex piece of machinery working properly. As Lopez quipped, “if it exists, it will break down,” and the accelerator seems to have been a particularly finicky piece of equipment.

Lopez described the mundane task of cleaning the machine, as any dust or hair present in the inner chamber could interfere with the experiment. The accelerator is made up of thousands of individual metal parts, and they all had to be perfectly clean for an experiment to succeed. The image of scientists perched on top of a giant particle accelerator, carefully removing dust and hair from every nook and cranny, contrasts sharply with stereotypically heroic representations of experimental science. Graffiti along the walls and ceiling of the accelerator hints at the long hours the crew must have spent inside of the chamber inspecting, cleaning, and maintaining the equipment.

There are lots and lots of individual parts, and lots of things that can go wrong.

Photo Credit: Bill Rankin

Because visiting teams of scientists would reserve the accelerator months or even years in advance, the crew had to be ready to run the experiment as soon as the group arrived. As each scientific team usually only had a week with the accelerator, there was no time for second chances. Part of the challenge was that in order to insulate the accelerator (which operated at 22 million volts), the inner chamber had to be pumped full of gas. Once the gas was pumped in (a process that in itself took an entire day), no humans could go back inside to tweak the machinery.

If one of the thousands of parts that made up the accelerator came loose and fell on the ground, it would create sparks so massive that the machine “sounded like a monster.” To solve this problem, the crew actually used remote-control cars, and later a robot of their own design, to retrieve errant pieces and save the experiment. If the robot failed to solve the problem, all of the gas needed to be pumped back out (which would take another day), so that the crew could re-enter the chamber and fix the machine. With such tight timelines, there was a lot at stake in making sure the machine worked properly.

Jeffery Ashenfelter, the Associate Director of Operations, reflected on the the tacit knowledge required to make the accelerator work. The key to successful science was tricking nature – but nature doesn’t always like to be tricked. He described the process of aligning the ion beam as “ion sorcery,” and admitted that they didn’t always understand how or why a certain alignment worked better than others. It took a lot of trial and error and a deep familiarity with the machine to create a successful experiment.

When we think of “big science,” we (naturally) tend to think about what’s “big”: the exorbitant costs, the challenges of international cooperation, the sheer scale of the required machinery. But the day-to-day operation of a particle accelerator requires a highly knowledgeable team that can carry out the countless small tasks and adjustments that make experiments work.

The Future of Big Science

Lastly, our tour guides reflected on the future of the Wright Lab and of “big science” more generally. The decision to decommission the particle accelerator stemmed in part from the lab’s shift away from particle physics towards the study of neutrinos and dark matter. When the accelerator was first installed in the 1960s, particle physics was an exciting and politically significant area of inquiry. Today, particle physics is what one lab member described as a “mature field.” While the accelerator could still be used to generate new knowledge, research in a mature field holds less appeal for an elite institution like Yale who strives to be on the cutting edge of new knowledge production.

While Yale had been a central hub for visiting researchers around the world, the massive scale of modern research facilities requires them to be placed in remote locations scattered throughout the globe, away from universities and urban centers. Members of the Wright Lab, for example, conduct research in several facilities around the world including the Gran Sasso National Underground Laboratory in Italy, the Daya Bay Reactor near Hong Kong, and (the coolest of all) the IceCube High-Energy Neutrino Telescope in Antarctica.

A shot of the outside of the accelerator. It looked a little like a submarine, complete with portholes.

Photo Credit: Bill Rankin.

The international nature of such work presents new challenges for physicists. While they know how to write equations and design detectors, members of the lab felt less prepared for the cross-cultural cooperation required to conduct major experiments. Ashenfelter spoke of his experiences in Italy and admitted that at first he didn’t know how to “get science done” in a different cultural setting. At every new site there is a learning curve as scientists adjust to the facility’s unique culture and regulations.

Thank you to the Wright Lab for giving us such an excellent tour and for answering our many questions about the facility and its history. I can now brag about having been inside of a particle accelerator, which I’m sure will be a huge hit at future academic gatherings and nerdy cocktail parties.


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