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Postcards from the Windy City - A Bird? A Plane? A...Magnet

By Abby Stocker

Fri, Aug 2nd, 2013
Posted in All Columnists

Dear Readers,

Picture this: a giant circular object, apparently a ring, shrink-wrapped in some kind of white plastic, on top of a 16-axel red flatbed trailer, driving maybe five miles per hour through a gap in the trees opposite the building where you stand surrounded by hundreds of other people. “Giant” here means 50 feet in diameter, wide enough to shut down four lanes of the interstate on its way here and merit its own police escort. Some people are saying it looks like a spaceship, or maybe part of a ferris wheel. Or maybe, due to the spoke-like support structure in its center, it’s an old-fashioned paddle wheel.

But your ideas would be wrong unless you guessed that it’s a magnet, the Muon g-2 ring to be exact. And you, along with the crowds surrounding you, are welcoming it to its new home at Fermilab after a 3,200-mile journey from the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.

The magnet, a “rock star” according to the AP, was welcomed home on July 26 with a reception for the public, and I was there. It usually takes me five minutes to get to Fermilab’s Wilson Hall for Scottish dancing. For the reception, the traffic within the Fermilab grounds was stop-and-go; I hadn’t factored 10 extra minutes for the short drive. But then, before arriving at the event, I didn’t realize that the Big Move had garnered attention from news outlets like Associated Press, let alone the U.K.’s The Guardian or the French Tribune.

The skinny: the shipment of the magnet, creatively dubbed the “Big Move” (#bigmove, if you’re on Twitter) will allow Fermilab scientists to measure the “wobble” of subatomic particles called muons. Muons, which are like heavy electrons, live approximately 64 microseconds in the magnet, which is cooled to -452 degrees Fahrenheit and charged with electric current to create strong magnetic fields when it’s in use. In other words, the scientists have spent $3 million to cautiously, delicately transport this huge ring for the purpose of more accurately measuring the spin of particles which live for less than a blink of an eye.

Wilson Hall was decked out with displays explaining the Muon g-2 ring’s purpose, the details of its journey, and the research focus of Fermilab, which will likely transition to particles (such as muons and neutrinos) since Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator was eclipsed by the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN lab in Switzerland. As the physicist at the Ask-A-Scientist booth explained to me, the Muon g-2 ring will attempt to verify some tantalizing initial results found at Brookhaven. There, physicists measured a slight deviation in the muons’ spins. They thought this deviation might indicate the presence of unknown particles in the magnet’s vacuum, since the measurement didn’t match that of any known particles. But Fermilab has more muons on hand than Brookhaven, and will have the ability to measure the deviation more precisely.

Will they prove the presence of a new subatomic particle? They don’t know yet, but the physicist I spoke to, Peter Winters, was hopeful. He was excited the way that some people might get excited by a trip to the Caribbean, eager to answer any question about the new toy.

As I listened to him explain their plans for the magnet, a few older men joined us and began questioning him on the particulars of the experiment. One, I found out, was a former physicist who remained fascinated by the field. Winters explained concepts simply, comparing the interference of the unknown particles on the muons to what it might be like if I tried to race through the crowded hall: I’d have to slow down, or bump into people and objects. And he shared that the community support was exciting for everyone at Fermilab. People’s eyes generally glaze over when he tells them about his work, he said.

Not the case at the reception, where the crowds cheered when the ring finally completed its slow five-week journey to Batavia. At the end, a photographer took an aerial photo of the waving crowd in front of the magnet, still shrink-wrapped on the truck. If it’s possible to welcome a magnet “home” after a long journey, Fermilab’s party for the Muon g-2 ring did just that.

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