Follow Slashdot stories on Twitter


Forgot your password?
It's funny.  Laugh. Science

MacGyver Physics 165

counterfriction writes "This month's issue of Symmetry, a magazine jointly published by SLAC and Fermilab, is featuring an article that points out the sometimes extemporaneous and unconventional solutions physicists have come up with in (and out of) the laboratory. From the article: 'Leon Lederman ... used a pocket knife, tape, and items on anyone's grocery list to confirm that interactions involving the weak force do now show perfect mirror symmetry, or parity, as scientists had long assumed.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

MacGyver Physics

Comments Filter:
  • by Ironix ( 165274 ) <steffen@nor g r> on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:06AM (#19297275) Homepage
    volume 03 issue 08/09 oct/nov 06
    Masters of Improv
    Photo: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab

    World-class detective Angus MacGyver of the hit 1980s television show MacGyver could jury-rig almost anything with duct tape and a pocket knife. High-energy physics labs demand as much and more from technicians and engineers, relying on their creativity and intelligence to navigate technical quagmires. And when a problem demands it, they deliver--engineering tiny cameras mounted on bocce balls that snake through 10,000 feet of steel piping; rigging a 13-ton cement block to bash deformed brass into shape; or aiming a high-powered laser around corners to unblock water lines. Unlike MacGyver's fixes--such as the fuse he repaired with a chewing-gum wrapper--some of these devices last.

    An improvised grinder
    An improvised grinder sanded welds along the long, straight sections of 10,000 feet of pipe at Fermilab. The sander within the rotating silver cylinder cleaned each weld.

    Photo: Fred Ullrich, Fermilab

    Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize-winning former director of Fermilab, is a legendary lab MacGyver. He used a pocket knife, tape, and items on anyone's grocery list to confirm that interactions involving the weak force do not show perfect mirror symmetry, or parity, as scientists had long assumed. Just as a watch hand always sweeps clockwise, nuclei of atoms eject electrons in a preferred direction as they decay, rather than spraying them randomly. The technical term for this is "parity violation."

    Intrigued by the experiments of Madame Chien-Shiung Wu, Lederman called his friend, Richard Garwin, to propose an experiment that would detect parity violation in the decay of the pi meson particle. That evening in January 1957, Lederman and Garwin raced to Columbia's Nevis laboratory and immediately began rearranging a graduate student's experiment into one they could use. "It was 6 p.m. on a Friday, and without explanation, we took the student's experiment apart," Lederman later recalled in an interview. "He started crying, as he should have."

    The men knew they were onto something big. "We had an idea and we wanted to make it work as quickly as we could--we didn't look at niceties," Lederman said. And, indeed, niceties were overlooked. A coffee can supported a wooden cutting board, on which rested a Lucite cylinder cut from an orange juice bottle. A can of Coca-Cola propped up a device for counting electron emissions, and Scotch tape held it all together.

    "Without the Swiss Army Knife, we would've been hopeless," Lederman said. "That was our primary tool."

    Their first attempt, at 2 a.m., showed parity violation the instant before the Lucite cylinder--wrapped with wires to generate the magnetic field--melted.

    "We had the effect, but it went away when the instrument broke," Lederman said. "We spent hours and hours fixing and rearranging the experiment. In due course, we got the thing going, we got the effect back, and it was an enormous effect. By six o'clock in the morning, we were able to call people and tell them that the laws of parity violate mirror symmetry," confirming the results of experiments led by Wu at Columbia University the month before.

    Another giant figure in physics, founding Fermilab director Robert Wilson, is the hero of a widely circulated tale.

    MacGyver aired in more than 40 countries between 1985 and 1992, in some cases leaving a lasting imprint on the local language. In South Korea, for instance, call a knife a "Maekgaibeo kal" and people know you mean the Swiss Army-type knife the TV character carried. Malaysians call their pocket knives "Pisau MacGyvers" or just plain "MacGyver knives." In Norway and parts of Finland, duct tape is sometimes called "MacGyver tape."

    Ernie Malamud, a physicist at Fermilab, remembers working with Wilson during his graduate studies at Cornell. The pair wanted to use helium gas, often used to fill balloons, to locate a leak in the glass vacuum chamber; but they discovered the hose from the
  • by Ironix ( 165274 ) <steffen@nor g r> on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:12AM (#19297311) Homepage

    And last week they most certainly didn't! The actual article stated the following:

    "He used a pocket knife, tape, and items on anyone's grocery list to confirm that interactions involving the weak force do not show perfect mirror symmetry, or parity, as scientists had long assumed."

    Couldn't the author of the slashdot post have at leased used the cut and paste features of his computer?

  • Typo in summary (Score:3, Informative)

    by achurch ( 201270 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:19AM (#19297347) Homepage


    Though I like the parent's suggestion better . . .

  • Re:Doctor Who (Score:4, Informative)

    by The13thDr ( 1108245 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @01:00AM (#19297523)
    You know there is a reason for that similarity, right? Terry Nation (creator of Dr. Who's Daleks) was a producer and writer during MacGyver's first two seasons.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2007 @02:01AM (#19297747)
    That's the cellophane around the entire packet, not the wax paper with the actual gum in it. The ones on cigarette packs work too.
  • by edwardpickman ( 965122 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @02:09AM (#19297775)
    Funny. It seems alive to half of us? Try logging in again and see if you get a different result. Look on the brightside. At least you don't have to catch another cat to retry this experiment. We're starting to run short in my neighborhood.
  • by someone1234 ( 830754 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @02:16AM (#19297811)
    I guess, even a light particle would count as observer. If I understood the concept, the whole setup is just symbolic and wouldn't work at all.
  • by DiamondGeezer ( 872237 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @03:33AM (#19298089) Homepage
    I don't know if this is mentioned in the article above (which appears to be slashdotted) but here's a scientist showing the force of gravity by creating a torsion balance using a ladder, fishing line and a few extras including two boules. (Yes, they're spelled 'boules')

    Bending spacetime in the basement" []

    Check out the timelapse movies at the bottom of the page to see gravity in action.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2007 @03:33AM (#19298091)
    The name of Lederman's graduate assistant was Marcel Weinrich, which Lederman does credit as working with him on the project. Lederman, Garwin and Weinrich are all on the paper confirming the results on parity violation.
  • by shadanan ( 806810 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @04:22AM (#19298241) Homepage
    Does it surprise anybody that grad students are treated this way? Its a norm. [] - funny because it's true.
  • by master_p ( 608214 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @06:07AM (#19298525)
    When they say 'observer', they don't mean a physical observer, but a photon that is used to measure the effect. The wave function collapses as soon as a photon is used to measure the position/momentum of another particle.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2007 @06:37AM (#19298613)
    Them destroying the ongoing work of another person just to save themselves a little bit of work shows a supreme lack of not only ethics but of decency.

    I think this is getting a little blown out of proportion. The other person in this case is not an unrelated party. The downtrodden grad student was working at Lederman's direction, using equipment provided by Lederman, on projects set to Lederman's priorities. If Lederman decides, a 6pm on Friday night, that his priorities now favor a different direction, then it seems to me that he should be free to extract from his studen't apparatus whatever detector, emmiter, or ring stand he needed.

    It would have been appropriate to offer some explanation to the student. Probably better to invite the student to participate in the new experiment (oh look, student is an author on the paper. I guess he did.), but the lab director is completely within his rights to modify the project direction to adapt to new information.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2007 @07:54AM (#19298893)
    Yes, this is true. I want to further the point though...

    Lederman went on to win a Nobel prize "for the neutrino beam method and the demonstration of the doublet structure of the leptons through the discovery of the muon neutrino".

    Ms. Wu's discovery was/is one of the experiments which provided the greatest insight into particle physics. Parity-violation is a corner stone of quantum mechanics. The sheer fact that is can happen, mind-blowing, if you were back in 1950s.

    Cronin and Fitch discovered in 1964 that not only Parity but also CP (~Charge and Parity operators) were not conserved. They got the Nobel prize in 1980.

    Where does that leave us? With probably the greatest snub in Nobel prize history. Why did not Ms. Wu get the Nobel prize. I have heard too many theories about that... That she is a woman, that Lederman's experiment was a month later but was published in the same month... And so on. Whatever the reasons, I can not help wishing that she had... As of yet, there are 2 women with Nobel prizes in physics.

  • by maxume ( 22995 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @05:57PM (#19302777) []

    The rats and maze stuff is in the bottom third or so.

"Never face facts; if you do, you'll never get up in the morning." -- Marlo Thomas