Atomic Manipulation Lab

September 2, 2016
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The sound of a laser firing rips through the quiet of early morning Dunedin. The Otago University starts to fill with a group of bustling young adults, ready for a new day of learning. The Atomic Manipulation Laboratory slowly wakes up. It stretches it’s doors open. It starts to fill with people and light starts to creep in. It is ready for the new day.


Bleary-eyed physicists and engineers wander into the halls and corridors of the Physics Department. Slowly, they begin to go about their day. Soon afterwards, the overnight engineers and physicists stumble home after a long night. The canteen begins to serve breakfast. The students from lots of different departments wander in and out.


The building is made of plaster and brick. One entire wall is plastered with glass, a windowed haven for thousands of future physicists, engineers and mathematicians. The glass makes the whole building look like an ant farm. The people walking around are ants, they nuzzle up to their Queens for the food that is knowledge. They move around and work on their projects and build big structures.


The lasers hum with a sound that is perfectly tuned to the experiment. The small room is bursting at the seams from the sheer mass of the experiment that takes up a large part of the room. The room is small, yet the science held within its walls has outgrown it tenfold. Wires lace the room like a spider’s web. The repeaters and various machines entangled in the wires are the prey of this humongous beast.


The huge metal structure dominates any room. Thick, large metal reflective thermal shields are situated all over it. Without these, the lasers would fry your eyes like eggs in a frying pan. The metal structure is open on the top with hundreds of mirrors and magnifying lenses. Multiple beams intercross and reflect hundreds of surfaces. They all head into a central cooling chamber. In the vacuum chamber, the lasers are manipulated to move the atom. The atom can be used for all sorts of things like building molecules.


The machines are louder than a thousand beating drums. The room has an atmosphere that is constantly moving, fans make sure of that. This room has not heard of the sun. The lights are eclipsed by the sheer mass of wires and machines that are strung throughout the room. The only exits are the door and a small air conditioning unit that hasn’t been working since dinosaurs roamed the earth. The air has a thickness to it, whether it is from sweat or bad air conditioning, no one knows.


Blinking lights that cover the experiment like a rash make the surfaces look like Las Vegas at night. The lights switch off and the lasers glow faintly. The light creates shadows that dance across the walls. They jump and twirl as the experiment repositions itself. The optical chamber is aglow with light, the circuits, like a city, are bustling and full of energy. The electrons are cars travelling down a highway. They wait for the bridge to open, they slow for the signs, they speed up and slow down as they go up and down the road, they wait until enough of them are there before they continue at a slower pace.


The atoms of Rubidium scream as they are torn away from their cloud of friends. The desktop computer, older than the room, chugs along trying to display the information required. It seems to send packets by snail. That singular atom gets caught in the photon field. The lonely atom shows itself to the computer as a white flash. In that moment thousands of transistors, resistors, logic gates, inductors and diodes all flood with energy. Trillions of electrons all start to flow causing the room to glow. The LEDs and lights flicker and shine in the dark.


The whole experiment is powered by a whole mess of cables. Cables run everywhere you look. The power cables are thick and strong like a rope. The power is distributed among thousands of components. The energy flows like water down a river. There are many dams on this river that stop and halt the flow of the water but there are also many jets that speed up the flow. The water flows in every available direction.


The onboard computer, sits high on it’s pedestal as it registers the data and digitizes it; sending it to the thousands of wires and cables through dozens of machines, displays and numerous other things before reaching the desktop PC and continuing through the software that turns it into a JPEG that is then displayed on the monitor for the physicists to scrutinize.

Everybody pours over a few pixels on a screen and then a spot on a page.


The pen moves slowly across the whiteboard. The physicist begins to draw. Symbols, letters, images and numbers. There is a pause. A frown. A raised eyebrow. The pen begins to fly across the board. The physicist has begun to solve the problem. His wisdom and knowledge are being channeled through the pen. Then he adjusts the machinery.


They start to prepare to do it again. This time with a slightly different parameter or maybe a different component. This cycle is as frequent as it is ongoing. The physicists and engineers lovingly pour all their time into this project. Just like a wheel the cycle keeps on turning, maybe after years of iterative process, the experiment could be applied more practically.


The room, abandoned at night, waits for its occupants to return. A grid of lasers glows green in the night. They cast shadows that stretch across the room. Then it all goes quiet as the lasers switch off and the thermal shields go up. Walls no longer light up green, but a beige colour instead. The lab grows darker, as does the night, until come morning, Dunedin wakes up again.

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