Anti-Matter: From the workshop to the laboratory

Anti-Matter: From smelly workshop to pleasant laboratory

Here’s how I got myself a new and better job.

The magnets I were winding were for so-called “positron beamlines,” in which beams of anti-matter are transported from their source (usually, as we professionals say, a “screetchingly hot” radioactive salt) to their destination (usually, a sample area that housed specimens to be irradiated). To get the positrons from source to destination meant routing them through these magnets – but to do that meant fine tuning each magnet with precisely the right current and voltage needed. And, back in 1988, to do that meant a lot of trial-and-error with pencils and erasers and back-of-the-envelope calculations on paper, or using FORTRAN programs that took days to use.

Enter me, with my love of computers, and with by then more than 10 years’ of programming experience under my belt.  In a very short time, I created a user-friendly graphical application that displayed the beamline, the magnets, and the resulting stream of anti-matter flowing through them.  Pressing just a few keys on the keyboard, the scientists could determine in real-time the optimal magnet settings so maximum number of positrons would reach their target.  But before suggesting this, I built an impressive prototype (or a mock-up), complete with graphics and sound – and I showed it to the head of the laboratory, Kelvin G. Lynn.   (Aside: Kelvin and I subsequently worked together for many years. Although most people probably don’t see it, Kelvin has a passion and charisma for science that other scientists recognize at once and usually awe. He became my mentor for many years, and I continue to count him among my deepest friends. And although I didn’t know it at the time, later as an IT Consultant I learned that prototypes and mock-ups are one of the best ways of convincing senior executives to invest in new IT projects.)

Long story short: Suitably impressed by my prototype, Kelvin immediately changed my assignment, and I delivered the user-friendly application I promised. Using my application, the scientists could now tune their warp engine with computer graphics and in real time!  I was at least 10 years’ ahead of Star Trek: the Next Generation!

This also took me squarely out of the machine shop and brought into the laboratory, where afterwards I spent a lot of time working directly with bits and bytes, using PCs to automate our experiments and collect data electronically, using such fancy interfaces such as RS-232 and IEEE-488. Since then a whole industry has grown up around that topic, and in many cases COTS (custom off-the-shelf) software products are used.

The history continues here: Anti-Matter, my little contribution to the Nobel Prize?