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Sunday, January 6, 2008

More powerful mega-machines for particle physics(INSIDE THE SUPERNOVA MACHINE )

A suit-clad technician kneels inside the 59-foot-diameter TRIUMF cyclotron during a
maintenance session. The particle accelerator is the world's biggest cyclotron.

In this age of bigger, newer, more powerful mega-machines for particle physics, Canada's 33-year-old TRIUMF cyclotron is literally a blast from the past. Sure, it's the world's biggest cyclotron - but to some physicists that might sound a bit like gushing over the world's most advanced horse and buggy.

In terms of size and sheer power, TRIUMF's 59-foot-wide magnet is dwarfed by Europe's 5.3-mile-wide Large Hadron Collider. When it gets up and running this year, that super-duper-collider will pack a punch 28,000 times greater than TRIUMF's. Nevertheless, there are some things being done at the TRIUMF lab, next to the University of British Columbia's Pacific coast campus, that the bigger places just won't do - such as figuring out how one element turns into another inside an exploding star.

The newfangled big-bang machines in Europe and the United States may grab more of the headlines, based on what may or may not be found in the future - but in the meantime, Canada's 33-year-old supernova machine is working virtually 24/7 on its own assortment of cosmic mysteries.

TRIUMF stands for "Tri-University Meson Facility," but today the consortium actually takes in six Canadian universities, with most of the facility's roughly $60 million in annual funding provided by Canada's National Research Council.

Hundreds of students and other visitors troop through TRIUMF every year - and I got my turn during a November trip to UBC, along with about a dozen researchers and journalists. At least one researcher remembered seeing the place as a high-school student. The cool stuff began right in the reception building, where a cloud chamber is set up behind curtains in a corner.

We took turns looking down through the glass at a dimly illuminated tabletop-sized tank, filled with what looked like a dark liquid. If you catch the light just right, you can see little lines and curlicues being drawn in the air beneath the glass.

"There's a little layer of supersaturated alcohol vapor - it's like this is a refrigerator," our tour guide, University of Manitoba physicist Des Ramsay, told us. "When cosmic rays come through, they leave tracks, like a contrail from an airplane. Occasionally a muon will hit a nucleus in there and knock off an alpha or some heavy, densely ionizing particle, so you see a short, fat track. And sometimes you'll see a track that curls around a lot, which is probably an electron."

This video clip gives you the idea - and making a cloud chamber is actually something you can try at home, assuming you're handy with dry ice, pure isopropyl alcohol and the home-brew construction supplies.

One thing you shouldn't try at home is building a cyclotron, which involves sending a beam of charged particles around a matched pair of D-shaped magnets, each as big as a backyard patio. The particle beam spirals from the center to the outside of the cyclotron, picking up energy every time it crosses the gap between the "dee" magnets.

It's impossible to ramp up the particles to the energies achievable in the ring-shaped Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois, or at CERN's Large Hadron Collider on the French-Swiss border. But you can get a steady, high-intensity beam at just the right energy for what you're looking for. In fact, you can get several different beams at different energies simultaneously - which is something you just can't do at the Large Hadron Collider.

We weren't allowed to see the cyclotron itself, but we could feel its presence as we stood on a concrete slab three stories above the magnets. Even that far away, with all the shielding between us and the device, the magnetic field is strong enough to make paper clips stand on end - which is the coolest magic trick on the TRIUMF tour.

Once the accelerated protons leave the cyclotron, smaller magnets guide the beam to a variety of destinations. The principal destination is another facility called the Isotope Separator and Accelerator, or ISAC. The protons blast away at a target, creating a rainbow of radioactive isotopes. The isotopes of interest - for instance, potassium-37 - are separated out from the collisions, and those precious particles are accelerated into yet another high-energy beam.

"This is the home of the exploding-star people," Ramsay told us.

The exploding-star people on TRIUMF's DRAGON research team select short-lived isotopes that are thought to exist naturally only inside a star, and smash them into hydrogen or helium nuclei. The results shed additional light on the primordial nuclear reactions that gave rise to the heavier elements we see on Earth today - including the elements needed for life as we know it.

One of TRIUMF's triumphs was to study how smashing together a proton and sodium-21 can produce magnesium-22 and release gamma rays in the process. That's just the kind of reaction that may have taken place eons ago in supernovae. Similar studies have been conducted to trace the transmutation of aluminum isotopes into silicon, then into sulfur, argon and calcium, and at last into titanium.

Such isotopes of all those elements can serve as the "fingerprints" for exploding stars - including the primordial supernova that souped up our own cosmic neighborhood.

TRIUMF's beams produce more down-to-earth benefits as well: One beam is directed to the Proton Irradiation Facility, where satellite components can be tested for radiation sensitivity.

The BC Cancer Agency also uses the beam to treat eye cancer: More than 100 patients have received proton-beam therapy - including blogger Robert Lee, who is documenting his battle against cancer on

Among TRIUMF's other medical products are radioactive isotopes for medical treatments and imaging - products that go to a Canadian company named MDS Nordion in exchange for royalties.

"They play our 'tune,' and they pay us every time they play it," Ramsay said. During 2006, MDS Nordion paid TRIUMF more than $4.5 million for those radioactive tunes.

Researchers from TRIUMF also harmonize with other physicists around the world - even at the Large Hadron Collider, which incorporates kicker magnets contributed by Canada. TRIUMF also provided the end-cap calorimeters for the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider, and will serve as one of the main data distribution centers for the ATLAS experiment.

Someday, ATLAS may pick up the first evidence of the Higgs boson, an elusive subatomic particle that is thought to be responsible for giving other particles their mass. "The first guys who see it probably will get a Nobel Prize," Ramsay told us.

So even though the big news in physics will likely be coming from elsewhere for the next few years, TRIUMF will be sharing in the Large Hadron Collider's glories, as well as celebrating its own scientific triumphs back home in Vancouver. It all goes to show that although there may be rivalries in the race to solve physics' greatest puzzles, scientists around the world - at TRIUMF and at Fermilab as well as at CERN - are all really on the same team.


DDR Supernova: Enough to bring back the Dancing Revolution?
Finally, more then 3 years later after the release of Extreme, a new DDR mix has been announced, DDR SuperNova under the production of the American company Betson. Among the current legal battle between Roxor, Andamiro, and Konami that would decide the future of Bemani games, and In the Groove's National Finals in Las Vegas, Nevada the news came as a shock to everyone. Speculation came from all sides, many didn't even believe it was true, but soon it was proven, in the next few weeks a song list was released, and finally, the first test location was chosen. DDR Supernova came to Europe, with the current explosion of Dancing Stage, it certainly wasn't a bad choice, but many American players were disappointed. Then, a few weeks later, it was released that a test location would be in America. Excited players made posts on the website, a arcade review site that is closely connected with Betson, in hopes to convince Betson of bringing SuperNova to their hometown, however, it seemed that most rhetoric was futile; a test location was soon chosen. Irvine, California became the first test location in the United States, a mere 15 miles away from my current living quarters. I spent most of the weekend with the SuperNova machine and simply the presence of its beta version is already causing quite a lot of talk.

The cabinet itself was a regular DDR cabinet, slightly larger in the back, with a new banner and stickers on the side. Aside from the back, no changes seemed to have been made to this machine from the Extreme machine. However, according to Betson, the actual new SuperNova machine will be drastically different from the old machines, including new hardware inside, a flat screen monitor, and a larger actual cabinet.

The graphics on the game itself look much more clean, and streaming videos apply to every single song, if a song doesn't have a specific video, it will contain dancer footage.

There will be background dancers, dancing to the bpm of the song, for every song similar to the home version. However, you will be unable to choose which background dancers you would like to have as they will be randomly chosen for you.

The beta sported 150 different songs, but Betson promised that the released version would have over 300. All of the songs from Extreme were present, as well as songs from the home versions, and roughly 20 brand new never before seen songs. The songs provided a nice variety, but it was quite clear that Konami was drawing heavily from their other successful Bemani franchises, Beatmania IIDX, and Guitarfreaks and Drummania. Songs like No.13, RedZone, and Xepher from IIDX, and Dragon Blade, konoko no nanatsu no oiwai from Guitarfreaks, as well as licensed songs, one in particular that grabbed a lot of attention, a remix of Britney Spear's hit song, 'Toxic'. Some of the Japanese names of songs have been replaced with English for the American version. For example, 'Mikeneko Rock' is now, 'Calico Cat Rock.' The song selection screen contains a new color scheme and better graphics with the banners and difficulty notification that brings back stream, chaos, freeze, voltage, and air on the radar.

A huge issue for many of the hardcore players was if DDR Supernova would provide the ITG generation of players with a new challenge that the past DDR's could not in comparison with ITG. The obvious answer to this question is no, DDR Supernova does not. Aside from the new extra stage, 'Fascination Maxx' there are no songs that can compete with the difficulty of some of the 12 and 13 footers on In the Groove. It is clear that Konami is not trying to compete with In the Groove, but instead provide old loyal DDR Players with what they are best at, a game that is fun. In talking with the Betson representative I asked who the main audience DDRSupernova is trying to reach, he told me that it was the hardcore players. If this was the case, the beta did not show it. In all the new songs, only two were 10 footers, Fascination Maxx, and Paranoia Respect. However, what was not shown on the beta, but promised by Betson may come as a relief to the hardcore players. Betson promises that every new song will have challenge steps along with the expert steps already seen. For some songs such as Konoko, Dragon Blade, and No.13 which seem to be some of the most difficult new songs, this provides quite a lot of promise for a challenge. Nonstop Courses and Oni were also not available, and these two modes, which are not available in In the Groove, may also help to provide a longer lasting appeal to hardcore players. All of the original DDR mods still remain and no change has been shown in the beta to match ITG modifications like mines or hands.

Over the weekend it was in Irvine, some of California's top players AAAed many of the songs, and one player even ended up passing Fascination Maxx. The bottom line is that difficulty was definitely the beta's weakest post. Luckily, the representative from Betson was able to assure the players of the challenge that will be offered in the final version. It certainly will not be an In The Groove when it comes to difficulty, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. And as far as the extent of competition between the two companies, that will be decided by one thing, the lawsuit. Konami has yet to give a specific release date and is currently only citing a release in Spring 2006. It has also been revealed that the full version of Supernova will debut at the E3 entertainment expo in Los Angeles, CA this week. We also know that it will be first released in the United States before anywhere else in the world, unlike every other one of Konami's DDR arcade machines. The success of Supernova could make or break the future of music games. After a sharp decline of interest in music games in Japan where these games first emerged Konami has hoped that the popularity would spread to the rest of the world. Whether or not Supernova is a success could have dire consequences on the future of Konami's Bemani series as well as arcades all across the country. The definition of supernova states that it is the phenomena bringing about a huge sensational explosion that is short lived. Will SuperNova live up to its name and fizzle out like so many other arcade games? Or will its spectacular luminescence bring light into the hearts of video game enthusiasts everywhere? We'll just have to wait and see what the future holds for our little star.

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