Sunday, 27 March 2016

Large-scale Facilities for Small-scale Science

(Reflections on a life in science: #8 the big ‘toys’ I’ve helped to build and to nurture)

Although my early-stage research career was mostly ‘laboratory-bound’ (see here for example) almost all of the last 35 years or so have been spent within the world of major national/international research facilities. I’ve already written a little about the associated ‘joys’ of what a former colleague labelled as suitcase science (here) and have alluded, many times, to the science and the partnerships that came out of it (e.g. here and here) – but I want here to talk about the facilities themselves. One of Spike Milligan’s many irreverently witty books had the title “Adolf Hitler: my part in his downfall”; what I intend here is more along the lines Major Research Facilities: my (very small) part in their success.

The significance of this short video clip will emerge later; suffice it to say that it marks and represents a key point in my story: the installation of an instrument – specifically, a spectrometer I designed, tested (in the USA) and commissioned. It shows me at about the age my son and daughter are now; I recall trying not to look at the camera or to trip over my own feet.

The obvious first issue is to define what ‘facilities are. I suspect the answer to such a question, were it to be posed, would vary a little from one scientist to another and certainly from one field of endeavour to another. However, in my area – the study of materials – one would be describing research equipment of a scale larger than could sensibly be provided at a level less than national, and more often than not at a multi-national level. Thus, within a financial, managerial and administrative framework appropriate for a large-scale project, there will typically be a purpose-built suite of instruments, and their associated support systems, which all rely in one way or another on a major central or core instrument. For example, one might have an electron accelerator at the core with many specialised instruments utilising the intense beams of x-rays and other light which it generates; the UK’s Diamond Light Source is one such facility. Thus, a facility will comprise many instruments, each with a sizable community of scientists/engineers who’ll compete for access in furtherance of their respective research team’s needs: hence the title (which is, I hasten to add, a phrase coined by others). I have both used such facilities, in the UK and elsewhere, and helped in their development and their strategic management. However, it would be a rather laborious – perhaps downright tedious – post were I to attempt to cover all this in detail; so, first a synopsis and then maybe an example or two …

A common factor in the successful management of the x-ray and neutron facilities I’ve had such a close professional relationship with is that, on a day-to-day basis, they are run by scientists, technicians and engineers who understand why they are there and not just how they ‘tick’. I should know, for four years in the early ‘80s I was one of the ‘beamline scientists’ at the UK’s neutron source ISIS and designed installed and commissioned one of its very first suite of instruments (aka beamlines); more of this later. Since then, I have been a member of, or have chaired, committees and advisory bodies charged with considering both tactical and strategic choices in relation to facilities both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. (I wrote previously about some of my experiences with committees: the good, the bad and the ugly; see here.) Furthermore I have been instrumental, if you’ll forgive the pun, in several proposals for new instruments/beamlines; more often than not this involved working closely with a whole community of fellow scientists – each of us contributing our expertise towards the common goal. Some of these proposals came to fruition in a fairly direct fashion, others had the effect of spurring the relevant facility into action by identifying a scientific need, and others simply fell by the wayside as better and stronger proposals emerged from elsewhere. In passing, I might record the fact that ‘failed’ bids are always a disappointment; it always hurts a little, but it’s a necessary part of the scientific life to applaud the proposal our peers regard as better (exactly as we must the theory or data or ideas that go beyond, or improve and therefore supplant, our own).

SPIDA is an example of a proposal which came to nought, ostensibly. It was for a neutron scattering instrument to study the amorphous and liquid materials at the heart of my team’s research and that of many other teams in the UK and elsewhere. The approximately 30 pages of the proposal I submitted on behalf of this group of scientists detailed the scientific need, outlined the design of the instrument and costed the project at £780k (at 1992) prices. It wasn’t progressed at the time, but it did encourage folk towards the eventual design and construction of an instrument that would do all we had originally envisaged, and then some (see here). There are analogous stories on the x-ray side of things as well; the x-PDF instrument currently under construction at the Diamond Light Source (see here) would provide one of them.

TOSCA was a somewhat different story. Having supported an earlier, unsuccessful bid for a spectrometer which would enable the detailed study of hydrogen atom vibrations in materials, I was asked to lead the UK part of a joint British-Italian proposal for this even more ambitious instrument. This 40+ page proposal came with a £842k price tag for the UK contribution (1996 costs; I wonder what the equivalent sum would be now, 20 years later …) – and this one succeeded. For a few years, until ‘ownership’ was formally transferred to the ISIS neutron source, see here, there was a plaque on a nearby wall declaring that the instrument ‘belonged’ to my University; an odd sight. The collage shows the postcard, printed to show off the new instrument and sent with a note of thanks to all the project’s supporters, above a shot of me and the two scientists who were to run the TOSCA beamline (John Tomkinson and Stewart Parker) – we’re shown peering into its bowels on the day of its inauguration; to the right is the front cover of an Italian magazine which also celebrated TOSCA’s arrival. (In case the music buffs amongst you were wondering: yes, parts of Puccini's wonderful opera were indeed played during the opening ceremony.)

Although I’ve alluded to this part of my career before (e.g. here, third figure/caption) I’ll share a little more of my distinctly hands-on involvement with one particular beamline: the electron-volt spectrometer, eVS. This was my workplace ‘baby’, a term employed in the conscious remembrance of the fact that both my daughter and then my son enjoyed their own respective baby months as the project unfolded. Undertaking the scientific specification, overseeing the engineering design, tendering for construction, the assembly, testing and evaluation took almost three years. Included within this, and ‘helped’ by government budget cuts at the time which ‘encouraged’ me and others to offset costs by working out of the UK, my family and I went on an extended secondment to the USA – taking my newly-delivered eVS with us in a pair of huge wooden crates. After 15 months, the eVS returned and was duly installed within its beamline; as this was the last of the so-called ‘Day 1’ instruments for ISIS and someone realised that none of the earlier installations had been filmed, the event was recorded for posterity within an in-house documentary film on the ISIS facility’s construction. The 15s clip is shown near the head of the post (with the permission of the STFC, who currently run the UK’s major research facilities). The remainder of the post hereafter is told using a storyboard of images and their captions: it is the tale of how one particular beamline, mine, came to be.

From early blueprints through to fully-engineered spectrometer: this was eVS prior to being boxed up, along with a small mountain of accessories (- including a complete set of metric tools since only imperial-sized versions would be available in the USA). 

From the freight terminal at the airport and into the drab concrete building shown top left (see here for their current, much-altered, website), and thence into the cavernous experimental hall under the mound behind it, came the crates containing the eVS and its bits and pieces, which had to be unloaded and then craned into the hall – its home for the next 15 months.

The next task was to build the beamline, including all the neutron shielding and so on; I was shown how to drive a forklift truck and a crane in order to move stuff from the storage areas, and then had to put into practice my childhood training from my bricklaying dad …

The build in the USA progressed, including the collimated beamline which defined the beam of neutrons from the proton-accelerator source to eVS and then the vacuum pumps and detector electronics required to collect data. Yes, there is the hint of a large hammer (top left) – all the very best engineering methods came into play – but notice also the more refined surveyor’s theodolite (top centre).

Back at ISIS in the UK, eVS’ final home was of course taking shape at the same time as I was doing the initial designs etc. The place from whence its high-energy neutrons would eventually emerge out of the ISIS target/moderator assembly is shown top left at an early stage of construction. To the right is a somewhat later image, after much of the shielding and concrete had been added; eVS’ beam came from the second port from the left – the faint line on the floor indicating the beam’s direction. At the bottom is an image shot along the eventual beam direction from inside the target/moderator building; next to it is the analogous shot, taken much later, after eVS’ return to the UK, through the instrument itself and towards the target. It would be impossible to take such pictures in so simplistic a fashion today: the vantage points are now hugely radioactive.

One of the more enduring legacies to this project was the novel design of collimation. The key was to reduce to a minimum the hydrogen content of the inner surfaces of all components; our low-resin boron carbide aggregate formulation, ‘crispy mix’, went on to be used in other later beamline designs. (For the uninitiated, whilst hydrogen is very good at slowing neutrons down, boron is excellent at absorbing them once they are slowed; iron shot is added to the outer section in order to absorb gamma rays.)

Much concrete, steel and boron-loaded wax shielding tanks came next: more obstacles to clamber over and under. The final stages included building a floor above all the various beamlines/instruments, and then painting the entire place in readiness for the grand opening ceremony by the then Prime Minister – many months after the whole place had started running in earnest, and after I had left to start an academic career elsewhere.

That’s all folks: aligned, wired up and ready to roll. The eVS beamline is shown as the second (larger) red block as one goes counter-clockwise from the 3 o’clock position in the diagram.

P.s. I moved from ISIS to the University of Kent in 1985, but eVS continued to be developed by my successor. A while after he himself moved on to new pastures, and the decision was taken to re-work the beamline in its entirety. I was a little sad to see all my work ‘scrapped’, but I agreed entirely with their decision and went on to support and applaud the excellent science that came from the new instrument (see here). One of the things that make facilities like ISIS and Diamond world-class is the continual commitment of their staff and their user-community towards innovation and the desire to move forward – that, it seems to me, is a fact worthy of support and applause.

Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research.
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist.
6) Why so many? – gender balance in the research team
7) Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – making things work: discussion, consensus and decision?

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