President Sue led a small keen group to the magnificent synchrotron at Clayton near Monash University. We spent an unforgettable 90 minutes being shown around the complex by our guide Emma, a young science graduate and future scientist of things nuclear.
Emma briefed us on how the 150m circular machine accelerated a beam of high energy electrons to nearly the speed of light and into a storage ring where they could whizz around for hours or even days at a time, bent by powerful magnets. Her key point was that the synchrotron was not a “collider” i.e. atom smasher, but a giant microscope even able to map the molecular structure of the Covid-19 virus.
Although the facility seemed deserted, Emma assured us that scores of researchers were holed up in offices and labs running experiments often round the clock, with teams swapping to give each other some sleep. Most users get usage free but commercial firms such as miners or manufacturers get charged around $700 an hour – which still seems pretty cheap these days.
Among her tales was how synchrotron research colleagues in Chicago were able to prove Phar Lap was poisoned with arsenic in the US in 1932. The proof was from two small hairs from Phar Lap’s neck in the Melbourne Museum. A day or two before his death, the hairs under synchrotron light showed a heavy dose of arsenic beyond any natural level. However it’s still unknown whether the poisoning was deliberate or through some sort of human error such as a careless stablehand.
One of the most inspiring applications at Clayton was to create better understanding of premature babies’ poorly-functioning lungs, which led to successful treatments. Emma said that if untreated, such babies’ lifetime medical costs could be many millions, so the synchrotron’s original $200m cost was being recouped several times over worldwide just from this research application.
It is now even being used to specially scan and irradiate adults with cancers that can’t be tackled conventionally.
Our visit was a particularly stimulating challenge, opening our minds to some frontiers of science.