I bet you didn't know that today, April 21, has been proclaimed by the Governor of Illinois as Particle Accelerator Day. As the woman in the media office at Argonne (home of one of the celebrated accelerators) said, why would you, no one cares. Sad but true I suppose. In fact, the Advanced Photon Source (APS) website does not even betray any intelligence as to this storied event; one must visit the Argonne homepage to find mention of it.
Why do I bring it up at all? My honors chemistry class has been visiting Argonne regularly all year to do some experiments with people in the Division of Educational Programs as a way to spice up the otherwise rather humdrum ritual of the laboratory experience. We have also visited the APS every year to show the impressionable students the kinds of work they might end up doing down the road, if they were indeed to pursue a scientific career. It just so happened that our planned tour of the APS fell upon the day before Particle Accelerator Day. Somebody decided that a big deal should be made of our visit; it is even mentioned on the Argonne website. So we are whisked into a room, and at some point the APS Director himself appeared, someone bemused, with a look as if to say, "who are these people and why am I here when I have really important things to do?" I am sure he did not remember, but some twenty years ago we were present at the wedding of a mutual friend. Tales I might have told... A photo-op is arranged around a gigantic 6-circle goniometer and we all make like we are learning at the foot of the master. Wonderful hilarity.
I have been going to the APS for several years now and I have to admit the wow factor has not diminished that much. The fact it works at all is a minor miracle. The kinds of experiments that are now performed routinely, and the sorts of insights into the working of both living and non-living systems that are gained as a result are really fairly amazing. Sadly though, the vast majority cares far more deeply about the next whacking on Idol than it does about the workings of fast moving particles.