Week 7: Eating the Fruit of Knowledge

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Sunday, July 13, 2014


Caleb L. Heath

The highlight of this week was undoubtedly our tour of NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This is an amazing place, a true gem of a national lab, and a cornerstone of American industry. If just a handful of things you interacted with daily had their tolerances off by as little as a millimeter . . . you'd notice.

This is particularly true in electronics. You may not have heard, but we've practically reached the limits of silicon-based computing. Intel works closely with NIST to develop new products, as do countless companies. NIST provides the facilities and expertise. Companies and research groups bring the problems and the operating fees.

Everyone knows the pain of being unable afford their own neutron research equipment and the difficulties of zoning for a nuclear reactor, even if it's not one rated big enough for power generation. But don't worry; that's what we have the NIST Center for Neutron Research for! If you have money and a research proposal (and a clean background check I'm assuming), NIST will let you come to Maryland and shoot all kinds of things with neutrons.

Very neat facility. It's a large hangar-like building criss-crossed with machinery, sort of like a techno-hedge maze. Also fun because they let us go inside and look at the nuclear reactor. It's just a small one, and it wasn't active at the time, but still . . . excellent. I love nuclear power.

No pictures unfortunately. Wasn't in the mood to visit Cuba on short notice.

Another neat thing about NIST: it has a large deer population that roams the compound. The whole area is fenced off for security reasons, and it's sizable enough to support a small herd. It's kind of surreal to be walking from building to building and see them doing their part to keep the grass low.

Another landmark is an apple tree. Not just any apple tree though, but a descendent of Newton's inspirational tree. That famous incident, of an apple helping to inspire gravitation, is true and documented. Newton did not however suffer a bonk to the head.

NIST's tree is a cutting of the original; it is the pure original. And it does grow apples. Stephen decided to pluck one and eat it. I thought I'd try one myself.

No great thoughts as a result of my consumption. Not unless you want to count, "Man, that's sour," and, "Old cultivars have really tiny fruit." Seriously, look at that apple in my hand. Compare it to the gigantic produce in today's markets next time you go.

You can thank selective breeding. And also Norman Borlaug. Or not. I won't dictate your feelings about the Green Revolution.

I'll close out this week's entry with an exhortation to future interns. Go up and down the mighty Potomac. Take a cruise if you like. Rent kayaks, like we did Saturday, and circle Theodore Roosevelt Island. Enjoy the splendor. Washington D.C. doesn't bring to mind the out of doors, but it has a lot to offer.

Caleb L. Heath