Friday, February 25, 2011

Straight from the Horse's Mouth

Budget cuts, the two words orbiting around so many debates. For the most part, it seems like a NIMBY case. Not In My Backyard. Yes, they are happening but it seems to never have landed near me. Well, this time it has.

For almost the last two years I have called UW Madison's Synchrotron Radiation Center (SRC) my home. And now it is set for termination. The SRC is a small particle accelerator laboratory that uses light to uncover the underlying properties of matter.

The SRC houses a machine that accelerates electrons near the speed of light around a baseball diamond sized track. This produces a broad spectrum of light frequencies scientists can use (like a microscope) to study matter.

"A person looks a lot different to an X-ray than with visible light. The same is true for other materials," said SRC physicist Cliff Olson.

The reality is what it is. There are a number of things involved in all of the politics that simply don't add up for a termination, it's just simply the "politics" word that we all like to blame. I will comment on one thing though.

The last line states that there are more powerful and capable facilities that surpass the SRC. This is true, the SRC accelerator is considered a 2nd generation light source and the standard today is the 3rd generation. We have designs for the 4th.

The accelerator, named Aladdin, housed at the SRC in Stoughton, WI during construction 1984

Most upsetting though is that a response like this is what sells the termination. An argument like this is a misconception, something that we internally believe: Bigger = Better. Much like how we say we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, we still do.

Saying that the SRC has been outdone by bigger laboratories is equivalent to saying that using a tennis racket in table tennis is much better because you can hit the ball harder.

Every mechanic, carpenter and builder knows the right tool is always essential. The SRC is being shut down and the official statement is not based on merited facts. I am continually reminded of why I do what I do to better communicate the idea of science.


  1. Sorry to hear that the SRC is being shut down! I agree with your point that bigger isn't always better. If relevant research can still be conducted with the equipment at the SRC it seems like a waste to shut it down completely.

  2. Interesting post, Eric - I wasn't aware that the SRC was being shut down. How unfortunate. It seems that many arms of scientific research will be affected by budget cuts, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the "bigger is better" argument often. More basic research and older techniques are sometimes the best. Are there plans to incorporate the SRC research into another facility?