Since my last post, I’ve delved more and more into the black magic that is modern-day technology. I believe a lot of people have an image of the chalkboard scientist, a scientist where most of their day is spent by a chalkboard grinding away at some equation. While equational derivation is an important part of the job, an often over looked part of physics is its relationship with technology. If you want to build an experiment, you’re going to need quite a bit of knowledge in electronics in order to make it happen. If you want to analyze data, you will need some programming skills.
This comes as a consequence of every experiment having very specific needs, making it difficult (and probably not very profitable) for companies to manufacture easy-to-implement, universal solutions for experiments. Thus, physicists will often need a lot of technological know-how in order to properly construct their experiments.
Personally, I find this exciting because I get to learn about many interesting (and niche) aspects of technology that are usually hidden from users. As expected however, this lack of commercialization has its downsides. Setting up the system of electronics for the experiment can be complex and convoluted. And because the system can be so difficult to initially create, many new experiments will re-use old, outdated, and inefficient systems from previous experiments.
Enter, the Cluster On Board (COB). The COB is a new piece of hardware made by the folks at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and serves as a high-end, long term, flexible direct answer to the technological needs of physics experiments. It combines the fast processing speed of firmware with the high computational power of software (no, Stanford isn’t sponsoring this blog).
Most of my time this past month has been spent learning how to work with and program this board. While this piece of equipment has many cool features, I think one of its biggest features that stuck in my mind is its cost. This technology is expensive, really expensive – like “If I broke it there goes all the money I made this summer and more” expensive.
Sometimes, I have to remove the COB from the shelf it’s on. Extracting the COB from the shelf wouldn’t be so bad, but the COB contains a pair of latches that grumble whenever you start pulling them hard enough. Every time I hear that sound, I think “Today’s the day I pull with too much strength and actually break something.” It’s somewhat similar to the illogical feeling that you might pull and break your friend’s car door handle.
I know the sharp resistance I encounter means the COB is about to successfully detach from the shelf, but sharp resistance is also generally a precursor that indicates an item’s structural integrity is about to be permanently damaged. I also know – the thing is literally designed to be removed frequently, but what if today’s the day…