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Geeky weekend

August 6, 2013

Last weekend I made the trip along with my teenage son to western Long Island, to join a volunteer work crew cleaning up the site of Nikola Tesla’s laboratory, Wardenclyffe, with the intention of restoring it and creating a Tesla science museum. I couldn’t resist the opportunity for urban exploring and the chance to rub elbows with history.

To round out our geeky weekend, the next day we visited the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory and got an up-close tour of RHIC – the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

Read on for photos and details of our trip.

The work crew started at 9am Saturday, so we left Delaware just before 5:00 am, traversing Manahattan around 8:00. It felt weird to be driving through Manhattan instead of to Manhattan. Then across the 59th Street Bridge, and onto the Long Island Expressway. During rush hour the L.I.E. deserves its nickname “The World’s Longest Parking Lot.” But early Saturday morning, as it opened up into the suburbs of Long Island, it is truly one of America’s great freeways. We got to Shoreham and found Wardenclyffe a few minutes after 9:00.

I had done some reading on the current state of the Wardenclyffe site, and my expectations were properly set. First of all, the iconic tower was demolished years ago. And you can’t go into the building for safety reasons, and that’s before taking the asbestos into account. I am told the building is sound, but it is clearly an abandoned industrial site.

Wardenclyffe south facade

This is the south facade of the building, which I think is the back. Believe it or not I never made it around to the other side. We were a few minutes late and just started working, so it slipped my mind.

There is a body of mythology about the goings-on at Wardenclyffe, including rumors of a death ray. You know that cartoon caricature of the bald-headed mad scientist with a domed observatory housing a death ray? That is a parody of Tesla.

From teslasciencecenter.org:

The purpose of the Wardenclyffe laboratory was the establishment of a wireless telegraphy plant. The prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White was contracted to design the laboratory and transmitter tower (187 feet high above ground and 120 feet deep below ground level). Stanford White became the architect for the building.

Tesla’s plan was backed by J.P. Morgan, who pulled out when he realized there would be no quick returns on Tesla’s technology. Tesla never recovered financially, and died penniless. Creditors repossessed Tesla’s equipment in 1903, and the U.S. government demolished the tower in 1917 for fear it would become a visual landmark for German U-boats. The foundation of the tower can still be seen:


In 1939, the Peerless Photo Company purchased the property to manufacture emulsions for photographic film and paper. Additional buildings were constructed. In 1969, it became Agfa-Gevaert, Inc., at that time a division of the Bayer Corporation. In 1987, manufacturing ended, and the facility was closed down. Since then, the entire facility has remained dormant.


The site is overgrown, especially with poison ivy. The volunteers are in negotiations with a local farmer for the loan of a few goats, who reportedly are fond of eating poison ivy and are not affected by it. But they are making a plant inventory, and have identified some specimen trees and shrubs, and cordoned off areas with notable growths of interesting native plants. Reportedly the site is infested with ticks, but we didn’t see any. There was an intermittent drizzle, which might have kept them down. The day stayed cool and the rain was far preferable to the heat.


The work was decidedly ungeeky, consisting of dragging brush to the wood chipper. The larger effort is to clear the grounds to make it safe to invite people (the less adventurous kind) for an initial dedication, ceremonies, and other fundraising efforts. The first financial hurdle is to raise a million dollars for asbestos abatement. Once that is done, then it will be possible to begin cleanup inside the building.

Please donate something to help create America’s first and only Tesla museum!


Some of the volunteers reviewing the courtyard they had just liberated from layers of brush, leaves, and heavy mud.


All these people are soaking wet.


Plan A for overnight accommodations was to pitch a tent in Wildwood State Park a few miles down the road. But calling ahead, it turned out there was literally no vacancy, not even to pitch a tent, so we stayed in a motel. We did visit the park and walked the beach along the Long Island Sound, but unfortunately I forgot my camera. So here’s a stock photo from the park website:


Brookhaven National Laboratory and RHIC
The next day, we woke up and were off to find Brookhaven National Laboratory, which unlike Wardenclyffe, has an actual working death ray.

BNL is on a huge campus with its own ZIP code, reminiscent of a military base. But the feeling is bucolic and academic, and I suddenly wished I had studied physics harder. The tour was well attended, and started in a building like a university conference hall a mile or so from the collider.

RHIC is a a ring 2.5 miles in circumference, and housed entirely below ground. There are two completely different particle detectors at different points around the ring, and a good-sized building that houses the main access point to the tunnels, with a modest reception area. This building is adjacent to the compression plant, whose job it is to keep 48,000 gallons of liquid helium cold and running through the ring at all times. And when I say “cold” I mean 4.5 degrees Kelvin, which is -451 degrees F. That is about as close to absolute zero as you can get on this Earth.

To get the people out to the ring, they ran shuttle buses to each detector and to the tunnel access. We of course got distracted and ended up getting on the wrong bus, so we did the tour backward – first the detectors, then the tunnel. I checked to see if we went backward in time, but it looks like we remained firmly in the present.


The large brown building houses PHENIX, one of the two detectors. Notice the earthen berm to the left, which contains the beam pipe. It looks like the pipe must be bent upward to enter the building, but in reality the building is sunken a bit, and the pipe is level. The beam pipe enters one side of the building, passes through the detector, and goes out the other side to continue on its way.



I have to say, this thing is much bigger than it looks in this photo. The beam passes through the detector from left to right. And right to left – remember there are two counterrotating beams. The collisions occur in the middle, and release a shower of particles that are detected by multiple detectors of different types. Now, at this point I didn’t hear the guide very well, but I think I have this straight: A shower of articles emerge from the collision, travel through the air and strike the large detector right across from the main chamber – imagine yourself turning around 180 degrees to see this detector, waiting for particles like a giant catcher’s mitt:


One of my main questions before I came was “How do the detectors detect such tiny particles?” Basically they work by perturbing electrons in some other medium – either in copper wires, or a gas. Electrons have a known charge and are more easily detected, and their perturbations can be measured, and the path of the particles can be deduced by the movement of the electrons. At least I think I have that right. I guess I have more reading to do.


This is the second detector known as STAR. It works on the ionized gas principle. The large radial disk you see is actually pulled out of its room where it is used, and is out in its maintenance position. The thing weighs 1200 tons and is mounted on rollers. When they need to use it, they push it with a skid loader from the right into this adjacent room to the left:


The STAR detector sits between those two giant disks so the beam can pass through the detector (you can see the beam pipe sticking out from the one on the left). The collisions happen in the center of the detector, where their detection chamber filled with gas (argon, I think) detects the particles emerging from the collision.

The beam itself is about half as wide as a pencil lead. They keep maneuvering the counter-rotating beams until they collide head-on. The collisions are not continuous, but happen – I forget how often they can get the beams to collide, but it is pretty frequently. Many collisions are rejected though because they don’t produce good results.

The main tunnel access itself is housed in this plain-looking building:


Access to the ring is one flight down some industrial metal stairs, along a cinderblock hallway, and then leads to this:


I got a chance to look at a cutaway example of the tubes. The beam itself is housed inside an inner metal tube about two inches in diameter. The rest of the casing is filled with helium pipes, helium return pipes, and various wiring. Sorry to say I didn’t get a good visualization of the superchilled, superconducting magnets that keep the beam contained and going around at 99.5% of the speed of light.

I was hoping I might have picked up a superpower, but so far nothing.

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