Earlier this year I was lucky enough to get to go over to California for a few days all in the name of science. We stayed up in the hills behind Berkeley, a short walk away from the instrument we were using. The view from our hotel room was pretty amazing with views across San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean.
They also had lots of wild turkeys. These were possibly some of the strangest birds I have ever seen! Coming from an Australian that is saying something – we do strange creatures well! They were big, had beautiful coloured feathers, a disturbingly bald head, and an even more disturbing bunch of feathers that protruded from their chest.
But we weren’t there to look at beautiful sunsets and question the purpose of strange chest feathers on large birds. We were there to do science! My supervisor, another ANU researcher and myself went to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (LBNL) to use their synchrotron, the Advanced Light Source (ALS). A synchrotron? Like the one in Europe where they discover new particles? Well yes, and no. It is indeed a synchrotron, which is basically a large, 200m ring that spins particles around it really fast (nearly the speed of light!). But in this case the electrons are then shot off from the ring down beamlines that have different analytical instruments at the end. Instead of smashing particles into other particles, particles are turned into different forms of light which then zap users samples.
We were using the X-ray microdiffractometer on beamline 12.3.2, which basically sends really thin beams of x-rays at your sample. The X-rays then diffract and a produces a pattern, which can look really pretty. Lucky it looked pretty, because when I first saw them they meant absolutely nothing to me!
This instrument was perfect for what I wanted. I had been struggling to identify a mineral in this meteorite for months! I knew what elements it was made of, but I had no idea how those elements sat together to form a crystal. And how they sat together meant so much! From that I could tell what temperature the meteorite formed at and then how quickly it cooled. It is important to know this because it can help us understand how the meteorite formed, and knowing how meteorites formed helps us understand how planets formed.
We had 72 hours on the synchrotron, all in a row. So it was really good to have three people – two could be using the instrument while one slept. Most of the time was used looking at samples of coral, the primary purpose of the trip. I only needed to identify a couple of minerals so I needed less than twelve hours on the synchrotron.
It was a short trip. A very short but exciting trip. With strange hours working overnight on the synchrotron and being in the United States for less than a week, we didn’t fully adjust to the time zone, making it a surreal experience. Surreal, but awesome.