I'm LinkedIn and Google-Plussed.

Mail and packages, use maildrop:
Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
eMail normsperling [at] gmail.com

Taking Up SLAC

© Norman Sperling, April 10, 2011

A group of sharp high school physics students let me join their tour of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in nearby Menlo Park. Public tours have recently resumed, overcoming budget cuts and administrative decisions. We got a very nice tour led by a very nice, enthusiastic, and articulate physics graduate student. He wisely assured the students that a great deal of particle physics was not known or understood yet, and the way he emphasized those unknowns was one of the best features of our tour.

This was certainly the best of the 3 or 4 tours I've had there. We saw the linear accelerator itself, and some of its targets. We saw large scale, highly technical stuff, being done by world-class scientists and engineers.

In the linear accelerator's 3-km-long klystron gallery, we went into the visitor's alcove, with views up and down the whole 3 km. I thought, "to determine the technicalities of all the fittings, they must have used linear algebra". Many of the students were better-rounded than some of the SLAC staff, because they spotted the bold capital letters misspelling "RADIOGICALLY CONTROLLECD AREA". Well, they did spell "area" right.

SLAC is a good place, using good people to do good work. The tour left the high school students quite inspired about the facility and the Science. Mission accomplished.

Some other things we saw inspired whimsy ... and disappointment.

Close by, we saw a small car labeled "SLAC Library". I pictured the whole length of the accelerator having one continuous shelf ... but no, they have a more conventional library, in a more conventional building. Not hopelessly conventional, though, because they do subscribe to JIR.

The huge Collider Experimental Hall sits mostly unused, its detectors now out of date. The enormous tank marked "Argon refrigerated liquid" is also marked "empty" (Mason said "Argon are gone"). When telescopes fall behind the forefront, students and amateurs get to use them; no such thing appears to happen at this accelerator. Is there any such thing as amateur particle physicists?

Standard tours miss quite a number of possibilities. I raised several of these with officials a few years ago and got nowhere.

The whole experience would be better if re-conceived as a "show" rather than a "tour". We were shown place 1, then place 2, then place 3. Much more meaningful would be to start with a tutorial on zooming down scales to subatomic particles. Then take an animation-ride down the linear accelerator and storage rings, followed by an actual bus-ride along the accelerator's whole 3 km.

My previous tours didn't even mention that the linear accelerator was for decades the world's longest building. This tour did mention that, and named the Beijing airport passenger terminal as the only bigger one now, though they didn't make a big deal out of it. I think it IS a big deal. It will impress kids - and adults - who can tell friends and neighbors "Hey, I just toured the world's second-longest building!"

The present neglect of Building 750 - whose dust particles now draw more attention than subatomic particles - foreshadows what may be in store for the linear accelerator itself. While its contents are the height of 1960s-2010s technology, the long building itself is a sheet-metal shed. What happens in a few decades when the technical stuff inside is superseded elsewhere and left to gather dust, while the building shell degrades seriously? It'll be way too expensive to preserve, yet way too historic not to. Is anyone planning for SLAC's future as a white elephant?

The Visitor Center is a "cabinet of curiosities" displaying interesting items from construction, devices, pictures of physics objects, Nobel Prize citations, and a cast of a fossilized marine mammal dug up when the accelerator was built half a century ago. They're helter-skelter, not fitting into any story or context.

There used to be a little store there, now reduced to an exhibit case of logo items available a couple buildings away (which I didn't visit). They feature conventional water bottles and coffee mugs and T-shirts, even though their signature item ought to be SLACks. They also ought to sell a scale model of the linear accelerator that kids could put together.

The SLAC visit was a good experience, but it could be a whole lot better if the host thought more planning would be worth it. Ticket and goods sales should earn back whatever it cost to improve.

I expect to pursue several of these themes as I tour other Big Science facilities in my cross-country trek.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results
This Book Warps Space and Time
What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You

Your Cart

View your shopping cart.