Week 7: NIST Tour

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Sunday, July 13, 2014


Stephen Skolnick

Couldn't tell you what half this stuff does, but I'd love to find out.While we visited NIST last week for an outreach event, this week we got to take a more thorough tour of the grounds and facilities. Practically as soon as we started the tour, we were in a hangar-sized warehouse, weaving among a baffling diversity of high-tech instruments and equipment. Stacks of lead bricks surrounded neutron beam-guide tubes taller than a man, and I could hear the steady whirr-chunk of a vacuum pump running somewhere in the tube-tangled distance.

Our tour guide, it turned out, had gone to school with Dr. Snow, the wiry and wild-eyed professor who supervised my Helium-3 work at IU. He pointed to a towering, powerful-looking device behind him, indicating that it was one of Snow’s experiments. I marveled briefly at the interconnectedness of the physics community, then hurried to catch up with the rest of our group.

Jake and I stopped to take a selfie with the Lincoln memorial and Washington monument in the background.We stopped by Ben’s office, where he writes code for simulations, and Kelby’s lab, where she’s working on producing samples an atomic layer thick. Collectively, they’re part of a project to create a nanopore analyzer that reads the electrostatic profile of a protein to determine its structure. We also got to check out a scanning electron microscope capable of visualizing nanoscale objects. Afterward, we went out to lunch and, while some of the others took the afternoon to visit NASA's Udvar-Hazy center, I returned home and collapsed, exhausted.

The weekend was a blast; we rented kayaks and spent the day on the Potomac river. A good ways downstream of the rental dock, we found a small but muddy island to relax on for a while. Jake went swimming and, though the river is supposedly legendary for its pollution, he seems fine. After another rough hour or so of rowing back upstream, we pulled into shore as the sun began to set burnt, weak and with blistered palms, but basking in the bliss of endorphins from the exercise.

Stephen Skolnick