Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Daddy's gone to Knoxville

As I enter the echoing halls of Chicago Orchard's terminal 2 in the monstrously early hours of a Sunday morn, for once scarcely a soul about, I'm greeted once more by the somber monotone informing that the security threat has been "elevated" to orange. There follows the various admonitions about what to do with baggage, and how much liquid one can carry on - in a zip-lock bag of course. Well of course it's orange! It always has, and always will be, for otherwise how can it be justified that we be subjugated to the absurd humiliations that constitute passing through the narrow way that is security? I must at all times be showing some "Government-issued ID," though on occasion my Oxford Bodleian Library card has sufficed, along with the boarding pass; people wearing blue latex gloves intently scan them both as if they were forgeries. And what, pray tell, is the function of the zip-lock? Is a sandwich bag without a zipper insufficient containment for my liquid? On this particular journey I felt the economic pain of heightened terrorist awareness. It is my custom when making journeys to foreign parts to carry a tincture of my pleasure to ease the boredom of the lonely hotel room in some far-flung clime devoid of the civilizing aspects of home. Said tincture, now being viewed with the deepest suspicion, must be packed in the checked luggage. Now I must be checking said luggage for a fee of $15. Total cost of my slightly sinful pleasure: $30. All because some dopes in England allegedly tried to make bombs from liquids a few years ago.

Enough of the preamble. I was being taken to Oak Ridge National Laboratory as part of the inaugural Science and Energy Research Challenge (SERCh) sponsored by the Department of Energy. One of my students, Amanda Manley, had entered a poster based on her work done at Argonne over the summer, and was accepted into the finals. The result: expenses-paid trips for both of us. You can read the press release here:

I had not been to this part of the world previously (I think I had been to or near Memphis previously); this part of the world being in or near the Smokey Mountains. At this time of year the scenery was mildly beautiful with the fall colors still maintaining their hold. Oak Ridge National Lab is deep within a vast tract of woodland, even more vast than Argonne. The buildings I visited all seemed brand new; what, no war-time piles and ancient lavatories - the hallmark of Argonne?

The weekend was something of a forced march, allowing little time for rest as we were shuttled on and off buses between airport, hotel and lab. Many was the person to be seen nodding off, including the SSCP, during yet another presentation. Though, to be fair, many of the presentations were excellent in both being entertaining and scientifically interesting. We were shown the sights, being treated, to some extent, like schoolchildren being wowed by the wonders of big science. We saw a room full of giant computers that are almost instantly obsolete by the time they are installed. They do amazing calculations. I was duly amazed. They also consume huge amounts of electricity and water. We saw the brand new Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) (I note my Mozilla spell-checker does not recognize "spallation"), the opening of which was largely responsible for the shuttering of the grand old IPNS at Argonne earlier this year; though the abruptness of the latter's closing on the day after Christmas or something, as noted in an earlier post on this column, was more due to cost cutting. The SNS is another super-mega instrument that consumes huge quantities of resources but provides, in the blink of an eye, structural information on complex molecules. My mind wandered back to the days of my youth when we wandered over to A.E.R.E. Harwell to do neutron diffraction using the neutrons that emerged from an ancient nuclear reactor. Even a simple structure would involve days of data collection, followed by months of refinement, and quite probably unsuccessful. We were being wooed to submit proposals to use it. Note to self: must submit proposal to SNS.

The main event was the poster session. There were five categories and prizes of real cash were awarded to three students in each, with one overall winner getting an additional $10k. Serious coin here. I know that in the evening of my late youth I can be inclined to occasional cynicism, but I have to say in all honesty I was really awed by the quality of the work, the quality of the presentations, and the quality of the students. The presentations at the end of the FaST program at Argonne can often be quite embarrassingly bad. Here I was overhearing earnest, confident discussions among students that were totally over my head; things about dark matter and weird quantum stuff; and they understood it.

One of the division winners was a lad from Naperville. For those unfamiliar with America's third best place to live (or whatever it is), there are four high schools associated with Naperville. The two downtown schools in District 203 are traditionally associated with academic excellence. Then there is the provincial District 204 with its fancy palace called Nequa (the place that Je$$e Jack$on gets all upset about), that all the nouveau riche want their children to go to (easy access to pot). The fourth school is the one no one wants to go to - too close to Aurora. Needless to say this student came from that school. A nicer and more intelligent person would be hard to find.

My goat girl did not win anything. The fact that she was there at all was pretty amazing though. Must do it again next year.

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