Friday, April 15, 2011

Synchrotron: The End of an Era?

I've said before that being back on a college campus offers so many unique opportunities. This week was no exception with the visit of Bill Blakemore, ABC News climate change correspondent, AND a trip to UW's Synchrotron Radiation Center. I got several opportunities to talk to Blakemore, and I highly suggest checking out his show Nature's Edge - but rather than delve into climate communication (a topic on which I could spew my opinions for hours) I want to focus on the SRC.

A cow, surrounded by nothing via Wikimedia Commons
Whenever I leave downtown Madison, I go through the same internal dialogue: "There are cows. Where am I? I don't belong here. There are cows. And nothing. As far as I can see. Cows and nothing. What am I doing in Wisconsin?" I hate to admit it, but I do still suffer from re-locaters remorse. I don't dislike Madison, but seeing prairie or open fields for miles so close to town still shocks me every time.

Today, my internal dialogue was triggered by the trip I took with my colleagues from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, through the cows and the nothing, to tour the SRC. Located about 30 minutes from campus, the SRC is a particle accelerator that is used by hundreds of researchers each year. Now, I make no bones about the fact that I am scared of physics - but even I was able to understand and enjoy learning about what the SRC does.

The "radiation' part of the name Synchrotron Radiation Center has nothing to do with nuclear radiation, what we have all been worrying about with the Japanese earthquake. Rather, radiation refers simply to the center's main purpose - to create light for scientific experiments. If you think back to what you know about the electromagnetic spectrum, you'll remember that there are different forms of light - visible light, microwaves, radiowaves, uv rays, x-rays, etc.

The SRC conducts a variety of experiments using the different forms of light (infrared to x-ray range) that are generated by accelerating electrons around the Aladdin storage ring. I am not going to do a better job of explaining how the ring works than the SRC does on their website, but I will say that the wave of light created by winging the electrons around needs to be contained/controlled and that is essentially what Aladdin does. It is the mechanism that harnesses the light so it can be used in experiments.

Synchrotron at Daresbury Lab in the UK
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The center was opened in 1981, and has a special role as far as SRC's go because the UW center gives visiting researchers 2-3 weeks to work on their projects, unlike the 3-4 days they might get to conduct research at another facility. Because the SRC is funded by the National Science Foundation, researchers don't have to pay to use it - it is free. Free resources, that invest significant time in research projects, are rare these days.

They are about to become even rarer. The SRC at UW has not made it into the NSF's new budget, which means that funding (the approximately $5 million it takes to run the center) will be cut off in August 2011. I appreciate that the SRC isn't cutting edge. It isn't shiny and flashy, but it still has scientific merit. The idea of the resource going dark seems like such an utter waste.

My colleague Eric, who works in outreach at the SRC and organized the JSchool's visit, has a terrific post on his blog about the closing of the SRC and the closing of Chicago's Fermilab - which will leave a hole in the scientific research community in the Midwest. I encourage those of you in Madison to take the time to check out the SRC before the last electron goes shooting through the Aladdin ring, and for those of you not in Madison take a look at the federal science foundation budgets - is there a resource near you that will be lost in 2011?

The reason I chose to focus this post on the SRC rather than Blakemore's visit, is because the SRC is such a uniquely Madison, WI experience. It reminds me of why, in spite of the cows and the nothing, I came to Madison. This is the site of some extraordinary scientific research - discoveries that I find fascinating, that ignite the sense of awe and wonder about the world that I have tried so hard to cling to as I have transitioned into adulthood. Seeing the SRC's inquiries end, while sad, makes me appreciate that I was in Madison in time to experience it for myself.

7 comments:

  1. I'm sure New Jersey does have cows somewhere, but not to the extent that they have them here. I can drive for hours outside of my home town and not see farm animals (the occasional horse maybe?) which hasn't been my experience in Wisconsin.

    My point was more about the fact that cows make me uncomfortable because they represent the extent of my foreignness here. I don't think that I particularly fit into Madison at all. Its not a criticism of cows, which I'm sure are perfectly lovely creatures. Its about how even after living here for 9 months, it still doesn't feel like home.

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  2. I was just kidding about the cows. I understand what you mean, though. I love Madison, but it's just not home. My apartment in Athens, Ga., was next to a horse learning lab and a shut-down chicken facility, so the difference isn't as striking to me. I'm sure I'd feel the same way as you if I moved to downtown NYC. I'm not used to living in heavily populated areas.

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  3. Haha, yeah I see what you are saying - I guess there is just something about the area where you grew up that sticks with you!

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  4. The field trip sounds like it was a great experience. That is terribly too bad that SRC is closing. It only fuels my already existing anger over the federal budget...but that's a whole different rant. But that's great you all got to go see it before it closes. And I hear you about the landscape shock in Wisconsin. Moving here from the Pacific Northwest, I felt it too. But, I took a class on grassland ecology last fall which gave me a new appreciation for prairie. :)

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  5. Great post, Erin! I wish I could have gone with you guys but alas it's been a hectic week at work (I actually spent Friday afternoon playing e-mail tag with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in getting to the bottom of food stamp fraud as my boss called for an audit of that program at the state leve).
    Anyway, in reference to your experience with the Wisconsin wilderness, I have to tell you that a former co-worker of mine from D.C. had an interesting first visit to WI some years ago for our boss's district town hall meetings. Being from Boston and having attended college in NYC, he's never driven through rural areas before. Well, he said he was quite petrified while driving through the country after dark while in Wisconsin. "There were no street lights anywhere!!" I recall he said upon returning to D.C. :)

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  6. Sign of the times with the closings of these facilities. I also really appreciated Bill Blakemore's fresh approach to everything. He seems like real student of the craft, even now, and I appreciated how he took time with each of us. His talk the day before was just as scattered and all-encompassing as our conversations. What a guy!

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