Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Scientific research in Grenoble

Every time I leave the nearby city of Grenoble, to return to Choranche, I drive alongside a vast scientific research zone, snuggled in the northern tip of the big triangle located between the two great waterways known as the Snake and the Dragon: that's to say, the Isère and the Drac. (The latter looks and behaves like a normal stream, but it's actually an Alpine torrent.)

This zone houses two extraordinary research tools, whose construction was financed by a consortium of nations:

— The ILL [Institut Laue-Langevin] is a nuclear reactor that produces neutrons. This research reactor produces the most intense neutron flux in the world. Its thermal power is over 58 megawatts. By comparison, Australia's recently-inaugurated Opal reactor, which is also designed to produce neutrons for research, has a power output of only 20 megawatts. Grenoble's ILL reactor is funded by France, Germany, the UK, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium and Poland.

— The ESRF [European Synchronotron Radiation Facility] is a giant ring-shaped tunnel that accelerates X-rays. Grenoble's accelerator, which is one of the three biggest synchrotrons in the world (the others existing in the US and Japan), is funded by France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Israel, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

If I've listed all the nations whose scientists use these tools, it's to give you an idea of the kind of international atmosphere that reigns in the great provincial city of Grenoble, which has always been a major center of learning.

The two facilities lie side-by-side. In the above photo, you can see the circular dome of the ILL reactor just behind the big ring of the synchrotron. To a certain extent, they might be considered as complementary tools, since beams of neutrons and high-energy X-rays can both be used to analyze the physical nature of targets that are placed in their way. The differences between neutrons and X-rays are illustrated in the following radiographs:

I was reminded of Grenoble's extraordinary scientific research facilities a few days ago. In his book called Programming the Universe [click here to see my previous article on this theme], Seth Lloyd tells us that he had been thrown into a stupor when told that, "not only was an electron allowed to be in many places at the same time, it was in fact required to be there (and there, and there, and there)". He couldn't seize this weird conclusion in a totally intuitive fashion, so he remained in a state of intellectual trance. It was not until years later, when Seth Lloyd happened to be working at the ILL in Grenoble, that the American researcher finally saw the light, as described here: "I awoke from my trance. Neutrons, I saw, had to spin clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. They had no choice: it was in their nature. The language that neutrons spoke was not the ordinary language of yes or no, it was yes and no at once. If I wanted to talk to neutrons and have them talk back, I had to listen when they said yes and no at the same time. If this sounds confusing, it is. But I had finally learned my first words in the quantum language of love."

In the context of Lloyd's fascinating book, I got a kick out of hearing him say that an arrow from a quantum Cupid [a Qupid?] had finally hit him while he was working in the capital of the French Alps. Over the last 14 years, I've visited Grenoble on countless occasions. But I still find that I'm overcome by a tingling sensation of excitement whenever I set foot there. I don't know whether it has anything to do with Lloyd's "quantum language of love". Often, I've imagined that some kind of tellurian energy is accumulated in the celebrated mountains which, as Stendhal once said, can be glimpsed at the end of every street in this fabulous city at the heart of the ancient Dauphiné province.

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