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Dawn Levy, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail:

Smashing apples and targeting Tupperware: Science is hands-on during 'Bring Our Boys to SLAC Day'

Nearly 100 children of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) employees participated in the first-ever "Bring Our Boys to SLAC Day" on Aug. 9. The event was the little brother of SLAC's "Take Our Daughters to Work Day" celebration in April. The Ms. Foundation for Women created Take Our Daughters to Work Day in 1993 to address dropping self-confidence in girls beginning around age 11. The event has since proven popular, and this year SLAC parents wanting to nurture scientific and technical inclinations in both girls and boys rallied to provide their sons with a similar experience.

During the day, dozens of boys and a few girls built and tested a vacuum chamber, completed a simple circuit and checked electric flow through it and participated in other workshops demonstrating key physical concepts.

The day's highlight, however, was a talk by 1995 Nobel Prize winner and SLAC Professor Martin Perl, who smashed apples with mallets and shot ping pong balls at Tupperware to demonstrate the science behind SLAC experiments.

"How do we look at very, very, very small things?" Perl asked the children after informing them that everything is made of molecules and atoms, and inside atoms are nuclei and even smaller things called quarks and electrons. If someone has never seen an apple and asks what's inside, you could cut it open to reveal the flesh and seeds, said Perl, slicing an apple. Scientists have a 'knife' of sorts to cut molecules and even their atomic building blocks, but they don't have a knife small enough or sharp enough to cut up electrons and quarks. Even the smallest knife is made of atoms, so it's the same size as the thing you want to cut, Perl explained.

Perl asked for a volunteer a forest of hands shot up to smash an apple with a mallet and illustrate SLAC's method for studying the supersmall. When atoms are smashed, subatomic particles fly out, revealing a lot about the forces that hold things together.

To find out the size and shape of things, Perl's volunteers shot ping pong balls at dangling objects plastic pumpkins, Tupperware lids, wads of newspaper to mirror what happens in a particle accelerator when scientists shoot electrons at protons. The fate of propelled particles gives scientists clues about the nature of the target.

In SLAC's B Factory experiment, Perl explained, technology is crucial to producing and guiding high-energy beams towards each other. "We actually have a way of guiding electrons towards each other magnetism," said Perl, inserting a plastic tube into the muzzles of two ping-pong ball guns to illustrate how magnetism controls the trajectory of an electron beam.

Lastly, Perl shared advice for those with scientific aspirations: "It's best to use your own ideas for, and in, experiments. For every good idea, expect to have five or 10 bad ideas. You don't have to know everything (before pursuing a research topic): You can learn a subject or a technology when you need it. You don't have to be a fast talker or thinker. In fact, it's best to avoid such people." And what's a trait that budding experimentalists would be wise to hone? "The art of obsession."


By Dawn Levy

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