"The feeblest contemplations of the cosmos stir us - there is
a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation,
as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are
approaching the greatest of mysteries." - Carl Sagan, Cosmos
As a human being, I feel it is my responsibility to have at least
a rudimentary understanding of the little specks of matter which
have come together to form all our livers, tongues, spleens, and
lungs so nicely (or, sometimes, not so nicely). Coincidentally,
these are also the same little specks that make up all the known
matter in the universe. Handy. As Mr. Sagan might note, if you
knew how, you could make anything you wanted, from a quasar or
a black hole to a pet elephant or a new best friend, out of just
a few simple ingredients. I would like to note, however, that
I am thankful that this is not possible. I would hate to live
in a world populated by millions of my fellow man's "ideal partner"
Back to the little specks! Let me take you on a layman's journey
to them inspired by a PBS special I once saw...
When you look at the skin on your hand (or feet or nose or bellybutton),
what do you see? Well, it's sort of a sack (but not too baggy)
holding your other stuff in. But this sack is made up of millions
of cells, which are, in turn, made up of molecules, which are
made up of atoms, which are made up of electrons, protons and
neutrons. Protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller little
jobbies called quarks. All these little guys whiz around very
quickly, kept together by incredibly strong forces, cleverly disguising
the fact that you are made up of mostly empty space. Yes, Virginia,
empty space. It's just those clever electric charges which keep
your hand from surviving that encounter with the garbage disposal
intact. But if it weren't for them your hand wouldn't exist at
all, so stop crying.
We owe all this knowledge to fabulous scientists of the past and
present like Ernest "Gold Foil" Rutherford, J. J. "Plum Pudding"
Thomson, Max "Constant" Planck, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman,
and even my favorite crazy Dane with a metal nose and a pet dwarf,
Tycho Brahe. And their work is carried on today by the scientists
hunkering down in a handful of perhaps the best and most useful
examples of government-funded Big Science, the particle accelerators.
To pay homage to the pioneers who make the understanding of our
bodies' quarks possible, a troop of Motel reporters recently paid
a visit to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), where
two-hour guided tours are offered twice weekly (call ahead). SLAC
rams electrons through a very straight, two-mile long tube 25
feet underground. Another possibility for your scientific viewing
pleasure is the observation of the non-stop collisions of electrons
and their positively charged counterparts, positrons. The electrons
which don't get used by the target folks, plus a host of positrons
speeding down the linear accelerator with them are separated by
magnets when they reach the loop at the end of the accelerator.
The idea here is to get enough electrons and positrons going in
opposite directions so that occasionally an electron and a positron
will meet and annihilate one another, spewing out all sorts of
interesting bits of sub-subatomic debris. It was in just such
an experiment that researchers at SLAC first found evidence of
the existence of quarks. This won them a nifty little Nobel Prize.
The most beautiful and least known fact about SLAC is that anyone
can write up a proposal and use the accelerator for their own
experiments, provided that their proposal makes sense. You probably
would not, for example, be allowed to use beams of electrons to
create monkey headed dogboys. Likewise, our own proposal to use
synchrotron radiation to attempt to enlarge our brains and rule
the world was promptly rejected. But, if you, as a housewife who
happens to have a Ph.D. in high energy physics, would like to
observe the effects of an electron beam on a new polymer of your
own design, you would be welcome to, at no cost to yourself.
We feel it our duty here at Motel to inform the public of the
enormous opportunities that a facility such as SLAC provides the
average citizen. The government certainly does a very poor job
of promoting the benefits of big science, as witnessed by the
continuous uncertainty of funding that researchers must face every
High energy physics is providing a glimpse into the inner workings
of the cosmos and attempting to answer the questions behind the
questions that we have been asking for as long as we have been
able to ask questions. Although practical applications for the
knowledge being acquired at SLAC may not be obvious at this time,
gaining a better understanding of our universe and of the forces
and particles which constitute, it is certainly a worthwhile pursuit.
If you're lucky enough to get "beam time," you can smash those
electrons into any old piece of junk (or "target") you like, and
see what they do.
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