October 17th, 2011
Episode 100 of 564 episodes
The scientific tribe that Peter Curran meets this week has a spectacular gleaming home. The tribal dwelling place is a gigantic silver bagel in the Oxfordshire countryside of England. Within this flying saucer-like construction is the UK's largest particle accelerator and it functions as Britain's most powerful x-ray machine. It's called the Diamond Light Source synchrotron and it enables scientists to peer deep inside matter at the scale of atoms. Hordes of researchers visit every year to image and study everything from new drug compounds to novel materials for computers, from tiny viruses to meteorites. The work of the visitors is only possible thanks to the resident scientists who run Diamond's experimental stations called beam lines. These are labs are positioned at different points around the giant accelerator's ring. Peter Curran puts the beam line scientists under his own anthropological microscope. The beam line scientists are largely physicists and chemists by background and each of the 15 beam lines has its own team of them, working in units called 'hutches'. The researchers have designed and built each station and are responsible for its smooth operation and pristine maintenance. They host the researchers who come to use the facilities. Some of these beam lines are operating 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. Peter aims to discover what working life is like in the UK's most glittering, new science facility. What are the thrills of harnessing radiation from Britain's biggest particle accelerator, and what are the more onerous aspects? How do the beam line scientists feel about having the responsibility of being keepers of Diamond's light when that role means they forgo full pursuit their own research? What's the formula for maintaining a harmonious hutch?