50-foot physics experiment on the move
||Symmetry writer Andre Salles tells you everything you always wanted to know about moving a gigantic electromagnet but were afraid to ask. Photo: Andre Salles
Day One: Friday, June 21
"Trust me, you won't be able to miss it."
Those words were ringing in my head as I drove around Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island for the first time, searching for a massive electromagnet. They were spoken by Justin Eure of the Brookhaven Media and Communications Office, and he seemed pretty sure. But surer men than he had been foiled by my hideous sense of direction.
I needn't have worried. A few winding turns, and there it was, the reason I'd flown 900 miles and braved two hours of New York traffic. A 17-ton, 50-foot-wide ring of aluminum stuffed with superconducting coils, covered in white shrink wrap, attached to a vast metal stabilizing apparatus and loaded up on the trailer of the biggest truck I'd ever seen. It took me a while to truly fathom how vast it was, how much bigger it was than I had imagined.
This magnet is the centerpiece of Fermilab's new experiment, called Muon g-2. It will build on a similar experiment conducted in the 1990s here at Brookhaven, which found tantalizing hints of new physics waiting just beyond our current understanding. The ring will capture and store muons, subatomic particles that live for about two millionths of a second, and allow scientists to study their magnetic wobble. If that wobble differs from theoretical predictions, it could point to the existence of undiscovered particles. At Brookhaven, the Muon g-2 experiment found hints that this was so.
I'm fond of saying that particle physicists build very big things to study very small things. This electromagnet is a very big thing. And, improbably, I was there to see it move, to begin a 3,200-mile land and sea journey from Long Island to the Chicago suburbs. This trip is the product of years of planning by an international collaboration and the result of cooperation between two national laboratories. I was just there to watch, but I felt caught up in the excitement anyway.
Moments after I ambled out of my rental car, Justin joined me, and we spent a few minutes just staring up at the ring, mouths agape.
"That's big," I said.
"It's definitely big," he replied.