Hold out your hands in front of you, palms forward. They look quite similar, but I’m sure you’re all too aware that they’re actually mirror images of each other. Your hands are chiral objects, which means they’re asymmetric but not superimposable. This property is quite interesting when studying the physical properties of matter. A chiral molecule can have completely different properties from its mirrored counterpart. In physics, producing the mirror image of something is known as parity. And in 1927, a hypothetical law known as the conservation of parity was formulated. It stated that no matter the experiment or physical interaction between objects – parity must be conserved. In other words, the results of an experiment would remain the same if you tired it again with the experiment arranged in its mirror image. There can be no distinction between left/right or clockwise/counter-clockwise in terms of any physical interaction.
The nuclear physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu, who would eventually prove that quantum mechanics discriminates between left- and right-handedness, was a woman, and the two men who worked out the theory behind the “Wu Experiment” received a Nobel prize for their joint work. If we think it’s strange that quantum mechanics works differently for mirror-image particles, how strange is it that a physicist wouldn’t get recognized just because of (her) gender? We’re mostly here to talk about the physics, but we’ll get back to Chien-Shiung Wu soon.
The End of Parity
Conservation of parity was the product of a physicist by the name of Eugene P. Wigner, and it would play an important role in the growing maturity of quantum mechanics. It was common knowledge that macro-world objects like planets and baseballs followed Wigner’s conservation of parity. To suggest that this law extended into the quantum world was intuitive, but not more than intuition. And at that time, it was already well known that quantum objects did not play by the same rules as classical objects. Would quantum mechanics be so strange as to care about handedness? Continue reading “There Is No Parity: Chien-Shiung Wu”→
If you need a high voltage, a voltage multiplier is one of the easiest ways to obtain it. A voltage multiplier is a specialized type of rectifier circuit that converts an AC voltage to a higher DC voltage. Invented by Heinrich Greinacher in 1919, they were used in the design of a particle accelerator that performed the first artificial nuclear disintegration, so you know they mean business.
Theoretically the output of the multiplier is an integer times the AC peak input voltage, and while they can work with any input voltage, the principal use for voltage multipliers is when very high voltages, in the order of tens of thousands or even millions of volts, are needed. They have the advantage of being relatively easy to build, and are cheaper than an equivalent high voltage transformer of the same output rating. If you need sparks for your mad science, perhaps a voltage multiplier can provide them for you.
When you think of a particle accelerator, you’re probably thinking of tens of kilometers of tube buried underground, at high vacuum, that uses precisely timed electromagnetic fields to push charged particles like electrons up to amazing speeds (and energies). However, it’s also possible to accelerate electrons in other ways, and lasers are a good bet. Although a laser-based particle accelerator can push electrons very effectively for a few centimeters, they top out at a relatively low maximum “speed” of a couple billion electron-volts, as opposed to the trillions of eV that you can get out of a really big traditional accelerator.
If only you could repeat the laser trick again, “hitting” the already-moving electrons from behind with another beam, you could boost them up to even higher energies. Doing so would take something like a one-way mirror that lets the electrons pass through, but that you could then bounce a laser beam off of. In a fantastic mixture of science and mother-of-invention-style hacking, these scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs use plain-old VHS tape to make plasma mirrors to do just that. Why VHS tape? Because it’s cheap, flexible, and easy to move through the apparatus at high speeds.
The device works like this: a first laser beam passes through a jet of ionized gas and pulls some electrons with it. These electrons are then focused into a beam and pass through some (moving) VHS tape. The electrons punch a hole through the tape. In their wake they leave a hot plasma of mid-90s TV shows you never got around to watching. The second laser beam is then bounced off this plasma mirror and further accelerates the electron beam from behind. In principle, you could repeat this second stage enough times to build up the energy you needed, but for now the crew is working to characterize their single-stage beam. Getting the timing right on the second-stage beam is, naturally, non-trivial.
Anyone who has spent some time in a science lab knows that there are millions of these tiny get-it-done-quick hacks behind the scenes, but it’s nice to see one take center stage as well. If you’ve got stories of great lab hacks that you’d like to see us cover, post up in the comments!
If you’ve got a few hours (or weeks) of spare time, you could learn how to run the Large Hadron Collider, located at CERN in Switzerland. CERN published the full technical details of the collider and detectors online, and anyone with some curiosity and patience can read all 1,589 pages. Tell us if you got through all of it, and if you’re planning to make your own particle accelerator.