Monday, 27 June 2011

Thoughts on a train

I was just thinking today that the machines I work with, particle accelerators, really sound too good to be true. My argument for this (in my head, on the train, to myself...) went something like this:

Imagine a tool that can see inside matter, right down to the level of atoms. This tool can not only see what types of atoms there are, but also where they are and what they're doing. Imagine how powerful that would be - being able to see proteins unfolding in real time, seeing how materials work from the inside, finding out all of nature's little secrets with ease. Then imagine that the same tool can be used to diagnose and treat diseases, like cancer for example. Not only that, but you can also use it to help in fields like security for scanning whole truckloads of cargo and in energy for driving new types of inherently safe nuclear reactors. Add to this the fact that you can use this tool to learn about the fundamental laws of nature, how the Universe evolved, answering some of the "big questions" of human-kind. But going beyond that, it can even create new matter that doesn't exist on Earth. (My head rambled on a bit more but I'll spare you the pain...)

You'd think "well, that's a pretty awesome tool..." and you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was, in fact, the ultimate scientific tool.

In my opinion, you'd be right.

Then I looked out the window as the train travelled from Wolverhampton towards Crewe, only 10 minutes behind schedule and thought: Imagine what we could do if we made this tool even better?

That's what I do. That is my research.


  1. Imagine an instrument that only outputs the Fourier transform of what you want, has a huge amount of shot noise and destroys the sample.

    It fits easily in your lab, if your lab is a disused airfield. It only needs about 10MW of power, its own cryogenics plant and about 50 staff to operate.

    Under extremely carefully controlled conditions, variants of this machine (but not the one you just bought for $500 million) can kill cancer cells. Under most other conditions, standing in the machine for prolonged periods will give you either cancer or radiation poisoning.

  2. Sorry :) To be fair for a minute: what accelerators do pretty much *has* to be unique scientifically, otherwise no-one would ever build such massive things! And I admit to being pretty excited about what the LHC is able to discover.