Warning: don’t try this at home

Whether it’s their irresistibly British accents or refreshingly non-snore-inducing physics coverage, the Guardian’s “Science Weekly” podcast is an entertaining roundup of the week’s science stories. The team is currently on vacation (or holiday, one should say) until July, and in the meantime they’re airing special episodes, each focused on a single topic. In Sunday’s pod, intrepid host Alok Jha interviews string theorist, pop science author, and futurist Michio Kaku about his latest book, The Physics of the Impossible. Kaku explains how close today’s scientists are to accomplishing science-fiction-worthy feats like invisibility, teleportation, and force fields—closer than you’d think, it turns out. But Kaku brushes an equally jaw-dropping topic toward the end of the interview:

“When I was in high school I did two experiments. One was to create anti-matter and photograph anti-matter when I was about sixteen years old. The next year I wanted to make my own source of anti-matter. . .so I decided to build a 2.3 million electron-volt Betatron particle accelerator.”

A seventeen-year-old building a particle accelerator in his parents’ garage? Talk about the physics of the impossible! The necessary ingredients for such a project include a highly evacuated environment (an air molecule is as much an obstacle to a flying particle as a brick wall is to a bus) and an extremely powerful magnetic field (to accelerate and steer). So the determined teenager scavenged parts from local electronics warehouses, and put his parents to work helping him wind 22 miles of wire into coils capable of producing magnetic fields so strong “they would rip the fillings out of your teeth if you got too close,” as he puts it. (For a more in-depth description, see the first chapter of one of Kaku’s earlier books, Hyperspace.)

As some of you might already know, a trio of New York wunderkinds are following in Kaku’s footsteps. Known as the Cyclotron Kids, they’re currently hard at work (with help and parts from Jefferson Lab in Virginia), creating their very own particle accelerator. I’m still exploring all there is to see on Physics Central, and was excited to stumble upon this video of the Kids, from early this year. For anyone looking for some light bedtime reading, take a glance at their project description.

Particle accelerators don’t have to be the 27-kilometer-long behemoths we’re used to hearing about on the news. In fact, if you don’t happen to own one of them new-fangled flat-screen monitors, you might be face-to-face with one right now! The bulky boxes of less-up-to-date TVs or computer monitors house mini particle accelerators, or cathode ray tubes (the most mellifluous three-word phrase in the English language, perhaps). TVs usually have three cathodes, or pieces of metal give off electrons when heated; much, much smaller versions of Kaku’s giant coils accelerate the electrons and “paint” them rapidly across the monitor’s screen. The screen is coated with phosphor, which lights up when the electrons hit it, and presto—glorious, mind-numbing television! Thanks, physics! So whether it’s the half-built betatron in your neighbor’s basement or the beloved “tube” to which you’re glued, these amazing things are all around. Which leaves me wondering: does anyone know of other incognito particle accelerators among us?

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