Geeky Astronomy, Geeky Physics, Spaceheads

When Galaxies Collide


A galaxy of stars is mostly empty. And in the emptiness of space, even the scale of a galaxy is nothing by comparison. And I thought about how unlikely it is for two objects in the universe to ever meet, how all the infinitesimal points that make up a galaxy will mostly pass […]

Big Complicated Machines, Geeky Physics

Big, Complicated Machines #14 – The Calutron


184” (184 inch) Cyclotron taken in 1942. Image: LBNL

Good morning everyone.

Today we’re going to talk about on odd offshoot of the cyclotron, actually it’s an odd offshoot of a cyclotron, it’s called a Calutron and it’s a device used to enrich uranium.

The calutron (I hate that name, just despise it) is another invention of E.O. Lawrence. Remember Ernest Eddy? I briefly talked about his invention of the cyclotron back in BCS #13, among other things. Anyway, Lawrence never intended to build any such device, he wanted to build bigger and better cyclotrons and had been doing just that throughout the 1930s. He and his associates built a string of them starting with the original 9 inch cobbled-together device, to a 27 inch 4.8 MeV device (a big improvement), a 37 inch 8 MeV device, and a 60 inch 16 MeV device. The experimenters that used the things just loved them and were discovering all sorts of new things, first of which is that the machines got inordinately larger (and more expensive, of course) as the power output increased. The sizes indicate the diameter of the acceleration chamber, not the size of the cyclotron itself. For example, the 60 inch device required the use of a 220 ton iron electromagnet, a picture of the device is after the jump.

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Geeky Physics, Technostalgia


The pitch drop experiment running at the the University of Queensland, Australia. Image from Wiki

Good morning everyone.

Sometime in 1927, a Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, decided to demonstrate to his students that some materials that appear to be solid at room temperature are actually extremely […]

Geeky Physics

A Conference on Electrons and Photons


Alumni of the 5th Solvay Conference in 1927. Click on the photo to enlarge in order to read the names.

Good morning everyone.

Some of the more interesting get-togethers that happen in the sciences are the tri-annual Solvay Conferences. The first conference held in 1911 was invitation only, and the subject was Radiation and the Quanta. Luminaries in the field of physics such as Max Plank, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein (the second youngest attendee), The Lord Rutherford of Nelson (i.e. Ernest Rutherford), Marie Curie, and many others drank and argued and sniped at each other about classical physics versus quantum theory and why two approaches to the subject at hand was evil, especially if one of them was called quantum theory. The minds in the room were all so open that you could positively feel a draft…

The conference was such a success (no murders occurred) that the sponsor of the event, Ernest Solvay, a Belgian with very deep pockets and a bent for science, founded the International Solvay Institute of Physics the following year. Its first mission was to “promote research, the purpose of which is to enlarge and deepen the understanding of natural phenomena”. The main goal of the Institute was thus the development of physics, “without excluding problems belonging to other areas of science provided that these are connected with physics”. 1 Whoever wrote that left out “and the Founder’s desire to see men of great learning get drunk and scream at each other and occasionally exchange clumsy blows.” Another conference was held in 1913, with next one not taking place until 1921 due to an inconvenient war.

The conference that we’re concerned with, however, is the fifth conference in 1927, the alumni of which appear in the top photo. The subject was Electrons and Photons, and the conference was veritable who’s who of giants in the field of physics. Nearly everyone that could get away with calling Einstein “sonny boy” to his face without him taking a swing at them was present. He was a punk. This is the conference where Einstein and Bohr were arguing (rather loudly) about the Uncertainty Principle that the snot-nosed genius Heisenberg had thought up, and Einstein said to Bohr (very loudly), “God does not play dice you asshole!”, to which Bohr replied (just as loudly), “Quit telling God what to do, you apostate Jewish bastard!”. Ah, great times. Of course, time has massaged the exchange to match the desires of each man’s sycophants, but that’s the way history works.

After the jump there is a “home movie” of parts of the conference that was shot by Irving Langmuir, who is present in the above picture but wishing that he was taking it instead.

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