DESY – Where Gods, X-Rays, IceCube(s), Dinosaurs and Nivea meet

DESY bus stop

Finally, I made it to DESY! This time, no meandering round unfamiliar countryside and struggling to obtain motorised transport in search of a particle accelerator (see the post on CERN), but a relatively smooth journey to my place of desy-re (once I had identified a path through the jungle of traffic cones near the most convenient motorway exit). DESY feels neatly integrated into its Hamburg surroundings: it has a HVV bus stop, industrial buildings, a round-about with a ship mast, a ‘border control’ and a bistro whose sign could be from any pub in the city.

Even the scientist who gave the introductory talk could have been straight from a Hamburg harbour barge tour. The only thing that clashed a bit was the presence of certain members of the Greek pantheon (the HERA ring and the ZEUS experiment). Note to self: try to avoid jokes about particle physics being ‘all Greek to me’…

The talk took place in an ordinary meeting room albeit with a blackboard complete with chalk-written equations on it. Slides were shown with the help of an overhead projector and a wooden (!) pointer. No beamer problems and laptop failures here! A blast from the past & very refreshing not to have to listen to the usual humming noises that accompany Powerpoint presentations.

The workings of DESY were explained very clearly (everything from DESY administration, workforce and legal status to the accelerator rings and the affiliated ‘particle zoo’). This way, I learned that scientists were not only looking at particles at DESY, but were interested in forces. The logic behind the sizes and size growth of particle accelerator rings was also something new that I had not thought about much so far. Apparently (please correct me if I wrote this down wrong), CERN will be the biggest ring ever, because the next size up would have to have a circumference of several hundred kilometres!

The most fascinating thing for me was to hear about the experiments with light. DESY is currently running an experiment called FLASH (Free-electron LASer in Hamburg) which uses shortwave UV radiation and is also an ‘X-ray laser pilot facility’ for another project called XFEL. The cool thing about XFEL is that it is supposed to allow scientists to ‘film chemical reactions, map the atomic details of molecules, and capture three-dimensional images of the nanocosmos.’ Not bad, eh? The planned start up date for XFEL is in 6 years time. As they write on the website, in 2014 it will be ‘Switch on the accelerator, lights, camera, action!’ Scientists as film-makers. Coming to a cinema near you? I do hope so.
So far, radiation at DESY is used to research anything from ‘fundamental physics’ to the make-up of dinosaur bones, old paintings or face creams (!).

The weirdest thing I had not heard about was the ICECUBE neutrino detector and its predecessor AMANDA in Antarctica. In the film about AMANDA, it says that everytime we look into the heavens, we are surprised by something. I think can say now that the same is true when you just go next door and hear wacky stories about a dark matter telescope inside a South Pole glacier. Makes me want to be a neutrino just so I can get a glimpse of this thing!

After the talk, we were given a tour of DESY. We could not enter any of the accelerator rings like at CERN as they were currently operational, so we ‘just’ got to see various bits of outside (‘you are now walking on FLASH – and actually here is our electron dump’) and the inside of some of the buildings (e.g. the HASYLAB whose name sounds hilarious to Germans), including the obligatory ‘control centre’. The building insides looked very Dr. Who in places

(on the DESY grounds, they even had wagon-like things with ‘BBC’ written on them – I’m sure it must stand for something else…), and I was half expecting a Dalek rolling round the corner in one of the corridors most of the time.

Instead, we just encountered lots of tinfoil. There was so much of it that they had to create a sign explaining why. I wonder if they share a supply with the on-site canteen! Anyway, unbothered by Daleks (or Krotons) we got to see part of the old ARGUS experiment and even got to lift (if you had more muscle than me) some of its components. ARGUS is so fondly remembered by the physics community that they even celebrate an ARGUS fest (not to be confused with a human rights festival of the same name)!


The last stop (if I remember correctly) was the old water cooling system. I was surprised to hear that ‘good old-fashioned water’ (as our guide put it) is still used to cool some of the components.

Cooling Facility

Most people then went back to the starting point of the tour, the information centre, and took lots of free leaflets and posters (might put one or two up to confuse fellow geographers…). Equipped with all this printed and verbal information, a full roll of film and some hastily scribbled notes, I ventured back south to the even more surreal setting of a friend’s wedding!

(Talking of heart-related matters: does anyone know what the sign below with the crossed-out heart is supposed to mean? ) ;D


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