Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Synchrotron, Sleep and Circadian Rhythms

The ten days of beam time at SSRL has played havoc with my body-clock....just driving to San Francisco Airport...I already felt the classic symptoms of jet-lag. This was before the 3-hour time zone change to Eastern Standard Time in Philadelphia, before my final hop to Greenwich Mean Time (good old GMT) later this week.

Roy Wogelius, Phil Manning and Holly Barden...resetting their circadian rhythms at SSRL.

Our body clock, or Circadian Rhythm, operates on a 24-hour cycle that impacts our bodies in many ways, from biochemical to physiological and even behavioural processes....when we want to eat, sleep or dribble at the check-in attendant at the opposed to stringing together intelligible sentences. Its only when you find yourself, a seasoned traveller, sat on the plane in the seat next to the realize you were not fully compos mentis at the time of check-in.

Deciding to work on a flight is sometimes a daft move....sleep is possibly the best option. Arriving back in Philadelphia at 6pm I felt refreshed, as I choose the sleep option on this flight....but by 3am the next day...I was almost ready to go to sleep! Its been a battle now for three days resetting my body clock to Eastern Standard Time....but the real shunt is to come on Thursday, when my circadian pulse has to re-boot with -5 hours time difference to Greenwich Mean Time. 

As my flight arrives in Heathrow on Friday morning, my body will be crying for sleep, telling me it is the middle of the night....but the work day for me will only just be beginning! I leave straight from the airport to a meeting in the hallowed halls of the Royal next blog might possibly centre upon the virtues of caffeinated drinks!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Who needs!

Working at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource is awesome. You get to image chemical ghosts of past life, using the stunning array of technology at beam-line 6-2. Here, we trip the light fantastic...very, very brightly. The x-ray beam generated is roughly 1 million times brighter than the sun....all courtesy of some protesting electrons being driven around the synchrotron, just below the speed of light.

The 200 meter diameter synchrotron gently hums all day, delivering its monochromatic packages of x-rays that make our work possible. As the intense x-rays hit each atom of our fossils, a characteristic shiver reveals its identity and concentration....very considerate of the said particles.

However, occasionally we 'loose beam'...its as bad as it sounds...and causes all work at the beam-line to halt...but then we start aligning samples, editing notes, updating image files and getting ready for the 'Spear 3 is injecting' message from the control centre of the facility.

It's a cosy little hide-out in our beam line area....its the place where we patiently wait for the next scan line to slowly build a chemical image, line by line, by microscopic line....reconstructing the sentences  once thought lost in the sands of time.

Back to the beam hutch.....a specimen needs turning on the spit!

Friday, 13 January 2012

We have beam!

After a long night and a short sleep, the Manchester/SSRL team spun into action in the early hours of this morning and the first tentative scans of a 50 million year old fossil began!

It took us till 19:00 hours to complete the whole scan, point analyses and spectroscopy measurements, but then we removed the fossil from the x-ray 'spit', only to be immediately replaced by a much, much younger menagerie...a mere few millions of years old! The new group of beasties, hence menagerie, were carefully mounted onto the stage by Bart van Dongen, Nick Edwards and myself, whilst Roy Wogelius, Victoria Egerton and Bill Sellers sorted the next scan parameters.

The next few hours we will be sorting scan ranges for our 'pinned' fossils, so that we may maximize our scan times and recover the best possible data. I think the bulk of us will be lucky to see bed this side of 4am tomorrow....but this said, its all worth it!

....but then, the beam started to drift....not begins another very long and sleepless night!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Particles most foul....and detectors that won't count?

It's 2:45am in the morning and Roy Wogelius, Uwe Bergamnn, Holly Barden Arjen Veelen, Nick Edwards and I are all staring blankly at several tens of feet of cable, coupled with too many knobs and dials. The said array of technology seem to be conspiring to prevent our detector from talking to the computer. Yes, we're back at the synchrotron at Stanford (SSRL).

The sleep depravation is simply crushing...there is no second wind, as yet another channel in the detector array does not play ball...but a decision has to be made as to what to do next....and sleep is but a distant memory and sadly not an option!

We have a 50 million year old bird sat on the synchrotron rapid scan x-ray fluorescence stage and we are bent on persuading it to reveal its elemental inventory that has been locked in its stoney grasp for soooo long. Each discrete biological structure, now clenched in stone, has the potential to reveal many secrets from the grave of the life, death and fossilization of this beautiful fossil.

Hopefully, when we get the electronic glitches resolved and the gremlins expelled...we can start scanning in earnest. Until then, we decided on a holding pattern...picking five key elements to extract from the fossil, as we raster it in-front of the bright light of SSRL. It's going to be a long night...and an even longer week...but hey, who needs sleep when there is fossils to be teased with x-rays!