Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, March 5, 1999  |  Number 5
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

The talk of the lab

People Ask the Darnedest Things

The Fermilab webmaster receives questions daily from far-flung correspondents. Many of the questions seek lessons in basic principles of physics, and their answers could undoubtedly fill a book: Why do particles and antiparticles annihilate one another when they meet? Why can’t we see the photons that mediate the electromagnetic force? Why is the neutron unstable? Why do you think the top quark is the end of the particle line? How strong is the strong force?

Some correspondents are eager to propound their own theories. "Have you tried the idea that quarks are conglomerates of inertial photons?" wrote one person. Another said that the speed of light was not 300,000 kilometers per second: "This is only the crystallization of space-time into the remaining six dimensions." Still another figured that "the speed of light will only be achieved by a pulling action and not by a pushing action."

We have some regular correspondents, like Dan Derrig, whose eighth-birthday wish was to visit Fermilab. At 7 years old, Derrig wrote to say he had discovered the mass of the neutrino: .789 MeV for the electron neutrino, 69.94 MeV for the muon neutrino and 891.7445 MeV for the tau neutrino. The webmaster broke the news gently: His calculations rested on false assumptions.

Another youngster, nine-year-old Riley (Buddy) Cumberland proposed a design for an "exelrator" to "accelerate subatomic particle that have a charge to about the speed of light without a lot of electricity." The design is on Fermilab’s Web site. Fermilab physicist Bill Foster responded for the webmaster, saying, "I was delighted to see someone of your age working on a problem as tough as the one in your letter."

The webmaster is called on to help with all kinds of problems, not just those related to high-energy physics. One apparently beleaguered fellow wrote from Texas, "where fire ants take control of everything." He wondered whether the microwave oven could be built without a door and placed on top of fire ant mounds to "cook these babies."

There are some unusual questions. One correspondent wondered whether a person’s aura was made of quarks. He had read that the energy of an aura can get stuck on earth when a person died, and that ghosts were merely the energies of these auras, or quarks. Did Fermilab study auras? the correspondent asked. Foster again aided the webmaster in responding. "First thing: quarks aren’t anything special!!! Almost your whole body is made of quarks," he wrote. And no, "Fermilab does not do any research on auras or any supernatural stuff."

Finally, it’s not clear why some questions come to the Fermilab webmaster, instead of, say, the Skilcraft company. Wrote one recent apologetic correspondent: "This might seem like a silly question, but how do you keep pencil erasers from drying out? I recently acquired hundreds of old pencils for my students, but the erasers are dry and brittle. Any ideas? Thanks."

–Sharon Butler

Clicking and touring the Recycler

With a click of a mouse button, the dense schematic drawing at the Fermilab Recycler website turns into a photo gallery. Click on a section of the drawing, and up pops a color image of that segment of the tunnel–real-life magnets, beam pipe and cabling.

"It’s a good tool to have," said Cons Gattuso of the Main Injector Department, who is the Operations Specialist for the Recycler. "It’s useful to people who have not had a chance to go down into the tunnel and see the layout for themselves. And it means we can bring in people who know how to commission an accelerator, but don’t know the specifics of this machine–for example, people who have worked on the Main Injector and then help out with commissioning the Recycler. They can familiarize themselves with how things are done."

The site (www-recycler.fnal.gov) is still under construction. Gattuso spent a weekend putting the display together, despite having no experience in constructing a Web page.

"It’s easy to do with the Recycler, because there are fewer adjustable components than there are on the Main Injector," he said. "But eventually, I’d like to have the whole ring set up this way."

–Mike Perricone

Cold War payback: GRB990123

When the BATSE and Beppo-SAX satellites spotted a gamma ray burst that was millions of times brighter than a supernova, the discovery had its roots in Cold War technology.

Satellites capable of detecting gamma ray bursts were developed in the 1970s to detect emissions from nuclear weapons during the peak of the weapons standoff between East and West. Now they’re used to detect gamma rays and x-rays from distant astronomical objects–like the gamma ray burst event of January 23, 1999 (GRB990123), the subject of a presentation by Timothy McKay of the University of Michigan (a former Fermilab researcher) in the Lab’s Wednesday afternoon colloquium series.

The satellites relayed information to ROTSE (Robotical Optical Transient Search Experiment), a collaboration of the University of Michigan, Los Alamos National Lab and Lawrence Livermore National Lab. And the collaboration was able to track the burst in "real time," beginning its observations 22 seconds after the burst began, because of an accident.

"The (satellite’s) tape deck broke, and we had to use the real-time downlink that is usually reserved for the military," McKay said.

About a half-minute after the ROTSE observation, the burst was bright enough to be easily visible to amateur astronomers with telescopes. The burst, which McKay described as "the most luminous object ever observed," probably posed more questions than it answered.

"How far away was it? That’s the basic problem of astrophysics," McKay said. "We don’t know how the energy was emitted, or the source of the energy. Is it coming from a star-forming region?"

But McKay said the data showed a high red shift, an indication of large distance, and "the energies were enormous:" on the order of 1051 ergs. By contrast, a nova is in the range of 6x1044 ergs.

Whatever all the results will eventually say, McKay declared: "The future is very bright for gamma ray bursts."

–Mike Perricone

last modified 03/05/1999   email Fermilab