Beam there

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Debbie Davies follows students on a visit to a laboratory that studies the fundamental nature of matter.

Isis was an ancient Egyptian goddess who had the power to bring the dead back to life - a useful ability which enabled her to reassemble her lover after battle.

This property of revitalisation makes her name appropriate for the science laboratory that has the world's most powerful pulsed neutron source for studying sub-atomic particles. Isis is also another name for the River Thames, which runs near the laboratory at Didcot, Oxfordshire.

Isis is part of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) which as well as providing study facilities for 1,600 scientists from all over the world, runs half-day tours to promote an understanding of science.

Janet Haylett, RAL's education liaison officer, sees school visits as a way of encouraging more students to opt for careers in science. "Inviting schools is one way of raising awareness of the career opportunities that science offers," she says.

On the day I was there, physics teacher Peter Walker was leading a group from Downs School in Newbury. "My A2 students realise there are people out here who handle complex equations as a matter of course rather than for plain intellectual stimulation," he said.

The tour begins with security checks, a safety talk and refreshments. We then head for the lecture theatre for an hour's theory.

There's plenty of historical background on how the atomic age dawned - to be expected given that we were visiting a place named after Ernest Rutherford. He was the man who early in the 20th century discovered the atomic nucleus. In 1908, he received the Nobel prize for chemistry, which miffed him because he felt physics was superior. "All science is either physics or stamp collecting," he said.

Less expected was the challenge to tackle calculations with Dr Chris Frost, Isis's instrument scientist. Students were asked to calculate the velocity of particles in the three Isis particle accelerators using Einstein's theory of special relativity. Some had forgotten their calculators, unlike Dr Frost, who one imagines is never without his and who had enough for everyone. Few students managed to get in the vicinity of the right answer, but that was not the point. A tour of the accelerators followed.

The Isis facility is bigger than a football pitch. For such a high-tech facility, it looks surprisingly old- fashioned, with big Frankenstein-like pipes and probes that disappear underground. Sadly, all the exciting bits, such as electromagnets and electrical pulses that send particles rocketing around the synchrotron, are hidden underground.

Nor were there many scientists on view: most of them work in portable offices and not on the shop floor. However, the few we did come across were able to engage students in what they were doing.

Powerful beams of sub-atomic particles are used to study the deep structure of materials, but fundamental physics also has practical applications in several fields, such as engineering, earth sciences and biotechnology.

A free CD-Rom, Living in a Materials World, is available. See Bulletin Board below for details

Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Chilton, Didcot OX11 0QX Education liaison officer: Janet Haylett Tel: 01235 445950 www.isis.rl.ac.uk

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