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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wired "Science" - Trumped by Kids in Highschool

"Build a Particle Accelerator In Your Living Room!" - or so shouts the headline in this Wired article.

As a geek I am always intrigued by this sort of headline.

Unfortunately I was sadly disappointed on a couple of fronts.

First off the "particle accelerator," from the description provided (which is minimal here):

"The piece [ particle accelerator ] consists of a series of organically-shaped hand-blown glass bulbs – each attached to a pump via a tube to create a vacuum. When the button is pushed, a voltage of 45,000V is applied across two electrodes. The huge potential difference forces the electrons to gather at the tip of the brass cathode tube inside the rubber bung. When the opposite voltage is applied to the anode disc at the other end of the internal tube, it rips the electrons, accelerating them towards the end of the glass bulb. As the electrons reach the disc, they begin to collide, losing energy and emitting some of this as visible light. Some, however, accelerate through the anode dics, and collide with the phosphorus lining of the glass vessel. This reaction causes photons of light to be released, resulting in visible specks of light."

Okay - surprise!

This is basically a description cathode ray tube (CRT) like you used to have on your desk attached to your computer on on the TV stand in your living room. 

This history of this goes back into the 1890's:

Not remarkable at all.

As a teenager I used to look at Scientific American articles call "The Amateur Scientist."  These were written for many years (into the 1980's) beginning I think in the late 1950's - one of the more interesting authors was C. L. Strong.  His projects (which were submitted by those who actually did them) included (from the link):
  • He-Ne laser: 9/64 with an addendum in the 12/65 issue
  • High altitude chamber for biological studies: 9/65
  • Hand pumped discharge tube: 8/66
  • Argon gas laser: 2/69
  • Molecular beam apparatus and mass spectrometer: 7/70
  • Proton & deuteron accelerator (along the lines of Lee’s machine): 8/71
  • CO2 laser: 9/71
  • Two transmission electron microscopes: 9/73
  • N2 laser: 6/74
  • Mercury-vapor ion laser: 10/80
These include actual particle accelerators - not simple TV CRTs.

I spent a lot of time studying these articles, going to the local library to try and understand the physics and electronics involved, and attempting to build these projects from scraps of technology laying around the house or from dumps (I had a cousin who was interested in this as well).

As a kid (thirteen or fourteen) I built "particle accelerators" too, I guess.

I used to collect old TV's form road-side household garbage.  Often they still worked too some degree but had blurry or miss-aligned pictures.   These all contained tube-based multivibrator circuits (as below save for tubes were used; source: Wikipedia):

These drove what was called a fly-back coil which was basically like a Tesla coil or a spark coil from an automobile engine (circa 1960's).  This created about 15,000 volts - just like the power supply in the "particle accelerator" article.

The CRT had a "mask" which you connected to the high voltage output and an electron gun (heater element) that you provided 6V AC too to produce electrons.  The high voltage caused the electrons to flow from the heater to the mask.  Electrons would penetrate the mask and strike the phosphor on the front of the CRT screen.

Just like in the description above of the "particle accelerator."

But I went further.  You could take aluminum foil and sandwich it between pieces of plexiglass to build high-voltage capacitors that you could "charge up" with these circuit.  You could build "ion engines" that spun around using high-voltage as the power source.

And I was not the only kid doing this.  There was a state-wide science fair I attended in about 1971 in Milwaukee, WI - I was in ninth grade.

There were probably at least six highschool kids that year with various "particle accelerators" of various sorts - though most were more sophisticated than what is described in Wired.  One guy, for example, was vaporizing gold, I think, and using high voltage to accelerator it through a tube and "sputter" it onto a target.

(Another guy had a voice recognition system that could understand words based on a mechanical clock and some old TV electronics.)

How sad is it that a magazine like Wired would print something like this as exciting "news!"

What about the catholic boys highschool (C. L. Strong link) where they built a 10,000x electron microscope as an "after school project?"  (Even today I find this article quite motivating: some old monk and a bunch of bored highschool boys with nothing better to do - so they build a workable electron microscope.  Compare that with how kids whittle away their time today...)

Wired unfortunately (and even though I am often inspired here by their topics) doesn't get it.

We are a technical shadow of what we once were.

Apparently no one there knows enough about anything to see this nonsense for what it is: a CRT.

No, I write here about things like climate change and other "modern science."

But the adult "scientists" at Wired can't even remember what was done 40 years ago by kids in highschool - often at home in the basement or garage.  If they've forgotten this then what do they know really about what's going on today?

Probably these things only exist on printed paper or CD "compilations" sold by Scientific American - hence they cannot be Googled - hence they simply don't exist in their minds...

This is so very, very sad.

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