The Roly-Poly Doll24th April 2017
TRIUMF's Ultracold Neutron Project is passing through a challenging phase right now. We are working within the most absolute time limit in the world of particle accelerators: the shutdown deadline.
Every year around Christmas, TRIUMF's accelerator shuts down for several months for repairs and upgrades. The shutdown period, from mid-December to late April, is a cause for celebration for some because they get a break from their rigorous experiments. For others, it brings something much less pleasant: ‘maintenance time.'
The annual shutdown is the only time when particle accelerator beamlines and targets, usually buried beneath thousands of tons of concrete and iron radiation shielding, are unearthed and accessible. Work to replace or upgrade components for these systems begins immediately when the cyclotron turns off and continues right until the final minutes before shielding is restored in preparation for reactivating the cyclotron. Because beam-time is so crucial to the TRIUMF facility at large, shutdown deadlines are inviolable. For months, everyone works with a giant ticking clock counting down in the backs of their minds. As many TRIUMF scientists have discovered, working within this non-negotiable time limit can sometimes mean drastically changing your experimental objectives or abandoning your activities entirely!
Because we have so little room for contingencies or surprises, TRIUMF scientists, engineers, and technicians carefully plan all work on beamline components long before shutdown periods begin. Any unexpected events that arise can have severe impacts on the scheduled work.
Here is an example: during the current shutdown period, the UCN team (pictured above) had planned to do a device test that required the use of two compressors that had just arrived in from our UCN collaborators in Japan. After completing the relatively straightforward task of installing and configuring the pair of machines, we eagerly pushed the ‘On’ button and… of course, they didn’t turn on.
It turned out that our compressors needed a tweak in the power phases that supplied them with electricity, and required more fine-tuning before they would work. Although fixing them was relatively straightforward, this hiccup cost us 2-3 days of shutdown time that we really do not have (naturally, this happened on a Friday afternoon when technical support is scarce). Sitting there with our powerless compressors, a profound notion about science research came to me: being a scientist requires that you persevere in the face of inevitable and continuous failure. Much like little roly-poly dolls that continually bounce back no matter how often you poke them, scientists must endure the constant trial and failure of research to attain their goals.
Thinking on this more, I realized that this personality trait is essential for experimental physicists (and for all scientists, eventually). When a scientist undertakes fundamental research, they are setting out to do something that no one has ever done before. Throughout the course of a research career, any given scientist will face problems that have not been faced before and wield technologies that no one else has yet mastered. Failing can hardly be avoided, and a unique tolerance for frustration is mandatory. As a roly-poly scientist, you MUST expect to be set off balance occasionally.
I communicate this to students when they ask me if I recommend graduate school or to go straight for a Ph.D.: whichever you choose, you will need steadfast endurance. However, just as you can be sure of failures, you can also rely on being rewarded when you overcome difficulties and succeed in your project. You get to be proud of your struggles through a challenging project, from its beginning, through its failures, and to its end.
Back on the experimental floor with the Ultracold Neutron Project, we managed to recover from being poked off balance, like proper roly-poly dolls always do. We are still (relatively) on track with our shutdown schedule, and no matter what comes our way throughout the rest of shutdown, we will keep rebounding back to centre (is our Director reading this? We will get everything done in time!). To be a good scientist is to always keep your head upright despite being knocked off kilter, just like the little roly-poly doll.