When you’re working with an ultra-high vacuum chamber, there’s no “popping down to the hardware store for a spare part.” Over the years, spares and replacements and antiquated equivalents and almost-still-good parts tend to accumulate in the cabinets of a physics lab. Cabinets start to look like set dressing in a sci-fi movie.
I am a spectroscopist, and this is my laser. It’s enormous, it’s fiendishly complicated, and it takes an enormous amount of time to keep it cooperative. Nonetheless, I can learn about the basic motions of molecules with it.
The farther along I get, the more I realize that the system basically amounts to Legos for big kids.
When I’ve published photographs from UC Berkeley’s student machine shop in the past, I’ve tended to focus on the enormous, ancient, and immovable machine tools that dominate the shop. The tiny details at the edges, however, are the key to making everything function. Here we see the array of a Allen wrenches, tool bits, and cutting oil necessary to turn a chunk of steel into a precise part.
My lab is packed with control boxes and oscilloscopes and all manner of signal processing equipment; strung between them all, like the web of a spider on caffeine, is a truly epic array of cables and wires connecting and powering the whole rig. On an average day, when nothing is (seriously) broken, I tend to forget about the mess of electronics, but it’s worth the attention (every now and then) to stop and really appreciate the ordered chaos that facilitates ultrafast spectroscopy.
Berkeley’s machine shop really is one of my favorite places–so much so that I keep posting on it. It’s so unlike the world of modern consumer technology, and simultaneously so integral to accomplishing much of my scientific work, that I can’t help but feel an attachment.
Today’s shot features one of the enormous lathes that take up the majority of the space in the shop. Every control is manual, mechanical, and enormously satisfying to actuate. Once it’s up and running, the amount of kinetic energy is pretty intimidating.
Today’s photograph is of the wall of that shop with its endless array of bits and blades for the plethora of machines that require them. Clicking through to view the full-sized image is particularly rewarding; each of those little strips of color is a label, put in place decades ago, describing the bit type and size, along with taped-up charts of conversion factors and tiny tutorials on how to use it all. Even a single drill bit is patterned with a mosaic of dents, dings, and damages that tell a story of the countless times it has been used; to see so many together, in one place, tells a story of generations of scientists working their damnedest to convince their experimental apparatuses to cooperate. More than plaques on a wall or papers in a file somewhere, this is the real testament to scientific achievement.
Berkeley has a Student Machine Shop, and my scientific experiments would never get off the group without it. I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve needed a part that has never before been made–I can only imagine in my mind what I need. I make some preliminary drawings, and I head up to the shop to machine this fantasy part from aluminum or, more rarely, steel. To see that form from my imagination slowly becoming reality is one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had. (It’s probably worth noting that I started as a sculptor before transitioning to photography.)
This particular photograph is of a milling machine, used to make planes, grooves, and holes in metal. In many ways, it’s a lot more flexible than a lathe (the other ubiquitous machine shop tool), but also a bit more threatening looking.