tatjna (tatjna) wrote,

In which boffins get nerdy about machines and I get nose-stalactites

Today we went to the GNS Isotope Laboratory in Seaview. Here is the GNS Science logo:

Here is another one you might be familiar with:


So one of the things they do at GNS is carbon dating. This doesn't just involve taking a swab from an old fossil and looking at it under a microscope, oh no. The thing has to go through quite the process first, and two of the five labs we visited were devoted to this. The first was the prep one, where they cook the bit of fossil (or old violin/painting/statue) to a crisp at really high temperatures overnight with an oxidising agent that removes the oxygen and leaves the carbon on its lonesome, essentially as graphite. These teeny bits are then taken to the accelerator mass spectrometer lab where they are placed into the machine which first accelerates the particles, then separates them, which allows the identifictation of ratios of radioactive C14 to the stable C12. Since the radioactive stuff has a half life of 5,730 ± 30 years, the amount of C14 in a thing will give you a fairly accurate estimate of its age.

So anyway, the AMS machine at GNS was being fixed while we were there and I found it very interesting to note that the tools being used by the experts who had been flown in from overseas to fix it consisted of a set of spanners, a set of allen keys, and some boxes of tinfoil. I kid you not. Also, the main chamber of it (which was open, exposing its guts) had a sign on it saying "Have you put the dessicant in?" O.o

Next up was stable isotopes which I talked about yesterday. They had a lot of machines, many of which did similar things to the AMS one only without the A part. The machines were all named after characters in LoTR, and while I like machines that do cool things I can only be minorly interested if I'm not allowed to use them, so I mostly found interesting the fact that I could tell how old the machines were by the varying colours and textures of their cases - which seem to have followed a similar pattern to those of PCs and peripherals. Most of the stable isotope measuring machines seem to have been made in the Beige Era or the Light Grey Era. There were a few from the White Era, one from the Black Era (known as the Coffin), and one from the Brushed Steel Era (which appeared to be called Gimli).

The Ion Beam people were flat out putting air samples into a vacuum with the same amount of vacuuminess as the space between the earth and the moon in order to identify what elements were floating about in it. In this lab they were also doing nanotech stuff, which on this particular day involved gold plating a macadamia nut with 7 layers of 7 nanometre thick gold, just to see if they could. Yes, they could. They were also doing work on a way of coating the inside of pipes which could make geothermal energy transport pipes (which currently last ~6 months) last 50% longer. That's a big deal in renewable energy economic terms - but yes, gold-plated macadamia nuts! Neat!

And finally we went in the freezer where they store the ice cores. This freezer is kept at -35°C which is apparently the temperature at which they can be sure the isotopes and other things in the cores won't start moving around and getting messed up. -35°C is really bloody cold - we were in our street clothes and within 5 minutes my brain was starting to slow down, I was having a hard time formulating intelligent questions, and while it was fascinating to look at the cores, my body was screaming to get out of there. Also the stalactites in the nose? Crunchy as. True fax.

So yeah. No repulsion gel to be seen (or at least, not that they were letting us see). Bummer. Listening to the AMS guy's views on thorium-based nuclear power as a potential energy source was interesting though!

From what I could see, lab work is similar to any other kind of office work but with better machines - the tasks there are quite demarcated and I imagine the analysis stuff is more interesting in terms of actually making discoveries - but that's all computer based so not interesting to show folks on a field trip. I am still of the mind that the things science discovers are very interesting, but the methods to discover them are.. not. At least, not from what I've seen so far.
Tags: important uses of nanotechnology, nose stalactites!, study
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