Below is a photo sphere of the facility housing the largest cyclotron in the world at TRIUMF in Vancouver, British Columbia. Commissioned under Pierre Trudeau in the 1970’s, it marks Canada’s boldest foray yet into humanity’s attempt to understand the world around us.
Inside the five story tall structure subatomic particles are slammed into each other at high speeds to produce isotopes used in nuclear medicine. If you have ever had a PET scan or a SPECT scan you may owe your life to the work being done at a place like this.
But facilities such as this, and some of its more famous cousins like the LHC in Switzerland, do a lot more for us than just produce particles. They are our window into the universe and give us our keenest insights into how it all began. Since our beginning humanity has made various attempts to account for the mystery of existence, but none of the answers we have come up with have been as satisfying as those we get from science like this.
However we still have gaping holes in our understanding of the universe. For instance, if we are to believe what our best models of the universe tell us, we shouldn’t exist at all. The big bang is thought to have created equal parts matter and antimatter which would have cancelled each other out leaving nothing behind. And for those that thought, like I did, that we couldn’t detect anti-matter, watch this video (voice is Ewan Hill, a PhD Student at the University of Victoria…apologies for the shotty camera work.)
The Future of Physics
Canada is now embarking on its next great contribution to the field with ARIEL. It is one of the most expensive science projects in Canadian history. “The Advanced Rare IsotopE Laboratory is TRIUMF’s flagship facility that will expand Canada’s capabilities to produce and study isotopes for physics and medicine. Utilizing next-generation technology, it will showcase a Made-in-Canada, high-power superconducting electron accelerator to produce exotic isotopes for research and development.”
The field continues to make progress because of programs like TRIUMF and CERN and the people who work there. In just the last few years we have proven the existence of the Higgs Boson and gravitational waves, two key pieces we have added to our understanding of the jigsaw puzzle that is the universe.
Every new discovery that we make opens the door to a world of possibilities. In 1738 Daniel Bernoulli published a principle of fluid dynamics that stated that an increase in the speed of a fluid occurs simultaneously with a decrease in its pressure. No one at the time could have guessed that we would soon be using this discovery to fly through the air like birds. There is no telling where the work being done today will take us and what new discoveries it will unveil.
It seems ingrained in our biology to keep pushing forward our understanding of the universe with ever more ambitious experiments. Perhaps one day, thanks to work being done at places like TRIUMF, we will be able to live up to the words of Carl Sagan, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
Big thanks to the staff at TRIUMF for showing me around and patiently answering all of my inane questions. Special thanks to Gina Lupino, Zhiyi Liu, Ewan Hill, Valery Radchenko, Hua Yang, and Keith Ladoucer.