May 24, 2019

What Happens When You Put a Ferret in a Particle Accelerator?

“IN FEBRUARY 1971, PHYSICISTS AT the National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, began testing the biggest machine in the world: a ring-shaped, 200-billion-electron-volt (BeV) proton synchrotron particle accelerator. The stakes were high. NAL director Bob Wilson had told the U.S. Department of Energy that he could get it running within five years for $250 million, and they were four years in. They soon ran into a perplexing problem: Magnets that were essential to its operation kept failing.

The low-tech solution proposed for this high-tech trouble? A ferret named Felicia.

But first, a bit of background. The NAL—today known as Fermilab, after the physicist Enrico Fermi—has a chain of accelerators: a linear accelerator (linac), a booster, a recycler ring, and a main injector ring. The linac provides the proton beam and the initial jolt of energy; the booster accelerates it; the recycler “batches it” into groups of protons for a more intense beam; and the main injector ring zips the beam around tens of thousands of times to nearly the speed of light. The particles are then sent to various testing facilities, where they’re smashed together or against a fixed target. The resulting collision, observed by a particle detector, reveals their interiors and sometimes creates exotic particles. These are the most fundamental elements of the universe.”

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