The diversity of particle accelerators

Today, I got to tour several particle accelerator research labs at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, including an inside look at a working accelerator, something I'd never seen up close before. Suffice to say, it was awesome, and I will be posting more on that here after I'm able to do a few more interviews.

I wanted to show you something real quick, though, from early in the tour. Postoc Daniel Bowring showed me a display, seemingly set up in the corner of a random hallway, where LBNL keeps a collection of segments from different types of particle accelerators.

If you're anything like me, when you picture a particle accelerator what you think of is something like the image above—a metal donut, or rather, a tube. What I learned today: Accelerators don't have to look like that. In fact, they come in a delightful variety of shapes.


  1. Maggie, I have a serious question.  I’ve been wondering lately why don’t we build a huge magnetic funnel to channel already-existing energetic particles into a target?  The cosmic shower issue aside, why wouldn’t we want to capitalize on particles with far higher energies than we can create?  With a giant funnel thingie somewhere in orbit or on the moon, we could collect cosmic rays and take pictures of the stuff they shatter on a target.  Yes, our beams are denser, producing more collisions, but we are stuck in 8-bit in a 1024-bit universe.  Anyways, your thoughts?

    1. I suspect that once it becomes economical to put big construction in space, we’ll do something like that. It could have a dedicated nuke plant, plus solar panels miles across to power the fields. We just need to get the Beanstalk built first.

      1. I wasn’t thinking it needed to be THAT big… you know, just _kinda_ big.  Like the size of a couple Hubbles.

      1. True, but it’s not snapping pictures of cosmic smashups.  But very VERY cool in any regard.

    2. Collecting the waifs and strays of the cosmic ray zoo is worth doing, but sometimes it’s important to know exactly what it is you’re accelerating and smashing.  And sometimes it’s just about the smashing stuff.

      Mind you, a big part of me sees equipment like this and stops caring about function – look at the form!  Just look at it!

  2. I have to admit that when I picture a particle accelerator, I think of a bunch of disparate equipment covered in tinfoil and duct tape as this has been my experience with them.

  3. Actually, you have seen a particle accelerator before — if you’ve seen a CRT monitor or television. CRT stands for cathode ray tube — and a “cathode ray” is just an old-fashioned way of saying “beam of electrons.” CRTs accelerate electrons towards a phosphor target, steering them using magnetic deflection. Same basic idea as any particle accelerator — just smaller scale and lower energy.

    I’m almost sad that I got a new TV, because now I can’t say I have a particle accelerator in my living room.

  4. Didn’t think LBNL did much on site particle physics, though the old parts are cool.  One thing I have noticed over the years is that while new instrumentation is much better in what it does most has lost its “wow” factor in its visual looks.  Older instrumentation really are works of art vs. the plan utilitarian look of things today.

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