The 50th anniversary of the Triangle University Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL) November 6-8 was a homecoming of sorts for hundreds of alumni, faculty and friends.
For half a century, the three Triangle universities have collaborated seamlessly on nuclear physics experiments using particle accelerators and other equipment too large and expensive for one university to effectively use on its own.
Key milestones in the lab’s history are marked by a dusty rank of empty champagne bottles marching across the top of a power supply cabinet in the basement lab.
Each trophy bottle records a moment of celebration, when faculty, researchers, technicians, and students gathered to savor an achievement made possible by years of working all hours of the day and night to design, build, measure, adjust, repair, monitor, and make sense of equipment and experiments. Each is labeled, typically in Wite-Out correction fluid, with a date and the event.
“The bottles represent technical milestones that either created new research opportunities at TUNL or increased the competitiveness of TUNL’s research activities in specific areas,” said Calvin Howell, who is a Duke professor and the director of TUNL.
Russell Roberson, Duke professor emeritus and one-time TUNL director, started the tradition. On Sunday, December 29, 1968, TUNL physicists successfully coaxed a beam of particles out of the new equipment, marking the completion of two years of constructing a new building behind Duke’s physics building and installing enormous equipment purchased with a $2.5 million grant from the Atomic Energy Commission.
“It was a pretty big deal to have that beam and it seemed like we ought to remember when we did it,” Roberson said.
Graduate student Chris Gould had just driven from Philadelphia to Duke between Christmas and New Year’s day to deliver a piece of equipment with colleague Steve Shafroth, who was beginning his TUNL career at UNC. “We arrived in the evening,” remembered Gould, who is now a professor of physics at NC State. “And came upon a bibulous celebration in the control room where bottles of Cold Duck were being cooled down with liquid nitrogen and drunk out of paper cups.”
Six months later, Gould began his career at TUNL.
In the coming years, they would collide this type of beam (and others) with targets of various compositions in their quest to unlock the secrets of subatomic structure and forces.
Here are a few trophies from over the years:
May 13, 1979 – “First pulsed polarized n”
In the mid-1970s, TUNL began producing polarized neutron beams, in which the neutrons were all spinning in the same direction. Knowing the spin direction of the particles in the beam made for more precise interpretation of the data when the beam hit the target. This bottle from 1979 marked a further enhancement—the beam was pulsed so that the speed of the neutrons in the beam could be calculated.
July 8, 1980 – “First data taken with the VAX”
TUNL was the first nuclear lab to take data with the new 32-bit VAX computer from the Digital Equipment Corporation. TUNL physicists built an operating system to go along with it, which was used by many other labs around the world. In fact, Gould and Roberson traveled to China and Saudi Arabia to help labs there set up the same system. (Before the VAX, TUNL “borrowed” computer power from the high-energy physics group at Duke, via cables that ran through a 4” pipe between the two labs.)
May 15, 1992 – “Lamb Shift Polarimeter Bump Bump Bump”
TUNL faculty and students designed a device called a “Lamb shift spin-filter polarimeter” that would characterize the distribution of spin directions of the particles in a polarized beam almost instantly — a task that had previously taken hours. “We had just collected the first spectrum which proved that the Lamb-shift polarimeter could be used to determine the beam polarization in the predicted way,” recalled UNC professor Tom Clegg. “It was a night for high-fives and celebration. We joyously popped the cork on this bottle late on Friday evening after a very difficult week.”
October 26, 2006 – “First Beam Extracted from Booster”
TUNL operates the world’s most powerful Compton gamma-ray source, called HIGS (which stands for high intensity gamma-ray source). The gamma rays are produced in a free electron laser ring, which is housed in a 52,000-square-foot building adjacent to the original TUNL facility on Duke’s campus. In 2006, TUNL scientists added a booster ring called a synchrotron to increase the intensity of gamma rays that could be produced. Scientists from all over the world use the facility for experiments involving gamma rays at energies of 10 million to 100 million electron volts (MeV).