The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is one of the biggest scientific facilities in the UK, so I was understandably excited to be able to visit the campus in Harwell, due to being a finalist of the Artful Physics competition. During an informative introduction, we were told a lot about the work they do at RAL. Their facilities include the Diamond Light Source, which produces incredibly powerful X-Rays used in imaging; ISIS, a particle accelerator; and the Central Laser Facility, which has several different lasers, including the record-breaking Vulcan (named after the Roman God of fire, volcanoes and metalworking), which delivers the highest intensity laser beam of any laser.
We were split into groups and given tours. My group was fortunate enough to visit the ground-breaking Vulcan laser. The viewing room doors had thick green glass and when we actually got to go into the laser room, we had to don some very fashionable overalls and overshoes, as even one speck of dust can accidentally focus the laser too early and damage parts of the magnifiers that allow the laser to reach such high intensities.
It requires 22.5 kilovolts of electricity to fire and can only fire once every 20 minutes. When fired, the laser focuses onto an extremely small target site, delivering enough energy to create plasma (found inside stars). It’s being used for research into nuclear fusion. After several minutes looking at the laser itself, we were ushered out as preparations for the laser to fire began. Amazingly, we were offered the chance to fire the laser, which I took. It was just the press of a button, but it was at a real target sample. That was probably the highlight of my day: getting to fire the world’s highest intensity laser!
And it didn’t end there, I was fortunate enough to win my category! I honestly didn’t expect to - the other finalist had taken an absolutely breath-taking long-exposure photograph of the night sky, capturing the star trails and how they seem to move as the earth keeps rotating on its axis. Personally, my favourite entry was the winner of the 14-16 category: a parody of Jekyll and Hyde entitled “The Strange Case of a Wave and a Particle”, detailing the history of how we came to understand wave-particle duality. It was such a clever take on the topic and beautifully made.
All of the entries were highly impressive and it was great to see so many different people’s artistic interpretations of their favourite thing about physics.