The day I left home for ISIS……ISIS neutron source

A photo diary of our brief time firing neutrons into metals.   


I said farewell to our precious kitty, telling her in human words that I was ISIS-bound. Her superficial indifference masking a very real concern – this revelation, when considered alongside my recent beard growth, was perhaps a sign of impending awfulness. “You have nothing to fear littleun’, we’re just going to be firing neutrons into aerospace materials at high temperature and stress”. She rolled around for me to rub her soft tummy fur; happy that I wasn’t joining a terrorist organisation.

The train rolled backwards out of Swansea station, pushing through the cooling sea air. With the platform still below my window, my phone rang. It was Sam, my EngD student, who was at ISIS early for some other experiments. There were problems..a few problems. It looked like we weren’t going to be able to do the sciencing that we’d planned; planned and written a beamtime proposal over six months ago. Do I leave the train at the next station and go back home? I told Sam I’ll carry on to ISIS, and we’ll work it out. There was something about having plenty of space around me on a train journey that had lent me a certain level of optimism. A few hours later I was at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories. Home to the marvellous and inspiring Diamond Light Source and ISIS neutron/muon source. 

I met postgrads, Sam and Rob, on the beam line.  

It appeared that we had 99 problems, if you rounded up to the nearest 99. The new detector we needed wasn’t available so we couldn’t run the experiment and specimens we had planned. Sam had brought a spare but different specimen, incase we had time at the end. So working with the ISIS beamtime scientists we devised an alternative.  
 We’ll look at the stresses within the specimen after applying cyclic loading, which is known as fatigue. And we’ll do this at high temperature. Saurabh and Joe, ISIS beamline oracles, wrote a script to apply load and perform the neutron experiment. We could leave this to run overnight. I was a little disappointed. I’d been looking forward to no sleep, coffee, and staring at screens of confusing coloured lines that mean either there’s an exciting research finding, or that the experiment has destroyed earth as we know it. Inbetween those two polar possibilities lies ‘going back to my Alan Partridge-style room and dealing with emails’. 

At least 4million emails later, and it was the next day…the warmest day ever…probably. Perhaps trains could spill their cooling ocean air from Swansea at Harwell. But today they were not. As the day went on, we’d find out that it wasn’t only my face that was feeling the heat.

Ooh a fracture surface, that’s good. That’s what you materials scientists love, isn’t it? Breaking things.

Unfortunately not in this case. The specimen was supposed to survive at these conditions. And it had. This picture shows part of the machine used to hold the specimen. Not all metals are strong at high temperatures, and this one wasn’t as strong as our specimen at this temperature, so it failed. 

  I’ve done mechanical testing for years, so I know things like this can just happen, but frustrating nonetheless. The change to the original plan because the detector wasn’t available meant we were running a spare and different specimen. We scrabbled around for parts to fit it into the machine so not to waste our time here, and unfortunately ended up with inferior connectors. Fortunately, the data had still been generated overnight and we were able to set up more scans for the remaining time. 

Here’s us selfying with beamline scientist Shu Yan. 


..and the flags of the world, outside the ISIS control room  


Failure and flexibility are part of science and research, even on an experiment more than six months in the planning. Staying calm and going along with the ride can be helpful, while you hope for a little bit of serendipity on the way.


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