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Humanizing Tech

When Your iPhone Becomes a Particle Accelerator

Fountainhead News: Apr 7, 2017

I. What is a Particle Accelerator

You know that big particle accelerator you heard about in Europe, called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It’s the largest machine in the world, and makes one giant loop about 27 kilometers long (nearly 17 miles). The group behind it, CERN, is one of the most well-respected and largest scientific bodies in the world.

But what does this particle accelerator do, and why is it so large?

The basic concept is to get two small particles moving as fast as possible and then smash them together to study what happens. We believe it will give us insight into what created the universe and how it works.

That’s important if you’re trying to recreate these things in a lab.

If you get two particles moving fast enough (i.e., near the speed of light), the ensuing collision produces a myriad of particles that scientists want to study. The main reason to building the LHC was to verify the last remaining aspect of The Standard Model of Physics, the Higgs Boson. In simplest terms, we want to know why some things have mass. And the LHC verified it.

The LHC accelerates these particles using the properties of magnetism. They vary the electrons along this massive “pipe” between positive and negative polarity, thereby pulling the particles along the tube. Once they get moving fast enough, the machine using other magnets to bend the path into a tiny ring so the chances of colliding are increased.

And then…BANG.

II. Why Should We Shrink It Down?

But if we already have this giant one, what’s the point of shrinking it down, and what changes? A year and a half ago, Stanford was awarded a $13.5M grant to do exactly that, over a 5-year period. Their goal was to fit an accelerator into something the size of a shoebox. Much more portable than a 17-mile loop beneath the borders of France and Switzerland.

By making them smaller and cheaper, the scientists felt that it would enable many more people to begin running experiments and producing applications. If that sounds like something Apple or the startup community would do, then you’re exactly right.

An app store for physics.

Now that’s an interesting thought experiment. The idea that “accelerated” this project came in 2013. Two simultaneous papers were published describing the ability of a laser to accelerate particles, instead of the LHC’s preferred mechanism of positive/negative electromagnetism.

And wouldn’t you know it, lasers could propel particles to nearly the speed of light. Nature published the results. It reduces the wavelength required from microwaves to laser light. It’s a massive reduction and the breakthrough needed to shrink the entire machine down.

III. The Latest Invention

Cut to today and they’ve got a working prototype. Again, sound like startup land? For the chip-sized accelerator, you can watch the explainer video.

They use words like “tiny devices” and efficient “solid-state lasers”. Again, sounds like the mobile chip industry, which is accurate because these innovations wouldn’t have been possible without the proliferation of smart phones and the investment by entire industries to shrink and cheapen the components.

In this case, the accelerator and the microwave-to-laser reduction shrinks the scale down by 10,000 times. That’s a crazy large order of magnitude difference.

10,000x smaller accelerator, via SLAC

Their goal with the laser is to force the particles to ride the peak of the frequency wave, much like a surfer stays on top of the wave, pushing him/her forward.

Now, back to the application space. Here’s a quote from Joel England, a fellow at Stanford’s SLAC:

“In radiation therapy for cancer treatment, medical linear accelerators weigh about 10,000 pounds and cost around $3 million,” says England. “So if you could make it with a microchip and have a very tiny device that’s portable, all you would need to do is plug a fiber laser into it to power it. This could lead to this therapy being used in a lot more settings and in areas of the world where there were cost restrictions on purchasing therapy devices like that.”

The group still has 4 years left in the project, with the goal being to have the accelerator the same size and energy requirements as a computer chip. Once that happens, you can imagine a future iPhone will include this feature, enabling ever more experiments and applications by enterprising entrepreneurs.

Coupled with the increase in CPU and GPU power by future chips, and the advancements we’re making in Artificial Intelligence, our future smart phones may end up transforming themselves from a Snapchat device into nano-sized Big Bang machines.

That sounds like a much better use of humanity’s time and resources, especially if you can overlay a dog video lens.


When Your iPhone Becomes a Particle Accelerator was originally published in Humanizing Tech on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

from Stories by Sean Everett on Medium http://ift.tt/2o61zhr