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MacGyver Physics

Zonk posted more than 7 years ago | from the hard-not-to-like-that-fellow dept.

It's funny.  Laugh. 165

counterfriction writes "This month's issue of Symmetry, a magazine jointly published by SLAC and Fermilab, is featuring an article that points out the sometimes extemporaneous and unconventional solutions physicists have come up with in (and out of) the laboratory. From the article: 'Leon Lederman ... used a pocket knife, tape, and items on anyone's grocery list to confirm that interactions involving the weak force do now show perfect mirror symmetry, or parity, as scientists had long assumed.'"

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hi (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19296977)

hi

Re:hi (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19296985)

So, how you doin'? You a hot girl-on-girl action type girl?

Changes over time? (4, Funny)

AJWM (19027) | more than 7 years ago | (#19296987)

to confirm that interactions involving the weak force do now show perfect mirror symmetry, or parity,

As compared to last week, when they didn't.

Re:Changes over time? (2, Funny)

Opportunist (166417) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297037)

You know, some experiments must be repeated 'til the result matches your expectation. But since neither music sales nor stem cells are involved... well, with a bit of squeezing we could press it into the "creation of the universe and all" corner.

Re:Changes over time? (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297203)

MacGyver was a cool show, regardless of what you say about week-to-week continuity.

Re:Changes over time? (4, Insightful)

martin-boundary (547041) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297287)

Actually, even though you're joking, this is the essence of the scientific method. Hard science works because anybody can (and should, periodically) check that the assumptions are true now. There's no room for faith in the truth of past experiments.

An experiment which isn't repeated again and again by as many people as possible is a meaningless experiment. That's one of the reasons why undergraduate physics students are given classic experiments to (re)confirm themselves in labwork.

Re:Changes over time? (0, Offtopic)

Plutonite (999141) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298365)

Having faith in the lack of editing on slashdot is one assumption which we will never have to reconfirm. Zonkism beats the scientific method, everyday.

Re:Changes over time? (4, Insightful)

Antique Geekmeister (740220) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298657)

You don't have to repeat it as many times as possible! That's just wasting time and money. Doing experiments with variations, to confirm what the limits of the theory are and testing related hypotheses is much more effective.

The real reason undergraduates get those classic experiments is to teach them how to do experiments, the limits of their instruments, how to record all relevant data, the difference between accuracy and precision, etc. The big experiment being done is actually on the students themselves, to see if they've learned to do reliable experiments. You absolutely do not want to do sensitive experiments with students whose reliability and even whose honesty have not yet been tested in lab work with known expected results.

Re:Changes over time? (5, Informative)

Ironix (165274) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297311)

And last week they most certainly didn't! The actual article stated the following:

"He used a pocket knife, tape, and items on anyone's grocery list to confirm that interactions involving the weak force do not show perfect mirror symmetry, or parity, as scientists had long assumed."

Couldn't the author of the slashdot post have at leased used the cut and paste features of his computer?

Re:Changes over time? (3, Insightful)

bladesjester (774793) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297429)

The thing about their story that got me was the fact that they decided they absolutely had to do this *right now* at 2am just to satisfy their own curiosity and were so self-absorbed that they killed the work a grad student had done in that particular lab in order to cannibalize his experiments so they didn't have to build everything themselves.

I'm sorry. That's not the mark of great scientists. That's the mark of self-important assholes despite the outcome.

Re:Changes over time? (1)

larry bagina (561269) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297563)

I'm sorry. That's not the mark of great scientists. That's the mark of self-important assholes despite the outcome.

Like killing smart people to eat their brains?

Re:Changes over time? (4, Interesting)

kevinadi (191992) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297653)

From the TFA:

Intrigued by the experiments of Madame Chien-Shiung Wu, Lederman called his friend, Richard Garwin, to propose an experiment that would detect parity violation in the decay of the pi meson particle. That evening in January 1957, Lederman and Garwin raced to Columbia's Nevis laboratory and immediately began rearranging a graduate student's experiment into one they could use. "It was 6 p.m. on a Friday, and without explanation, we took the student's experiment apart," Lederman later recalled in an interview. "He started crying, as he should have."

Great mind, horrible human being.

Re:Changes over time? (0, Redundant)

Ignis Flatus (689403) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297869)

no, he shouldn't have. he should have kicked somebody's ass. there wouldn't be fewer horrible human beings if there were more ass whoopins, but they might do fewer horrible things.

Re:Changes over time? (3, Informative)

shadanan (806810) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298241)

Does it surprise anybody that grad students are treated this way? Its a norm. http://www.phdcomics.com/ [phdcomics.com] - funny because it's true.

Re:Changes over time? (3, Interesting)

kevinadi (191992) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298361)

Hell I'm a grad student and I don't get treated like that. Dismantling someone's experiment out of some higher-ups whim is not what I would consider normal, or I'm just really lucky to have a supervisor that I can actually talk to instead of him expecting me to treat him like a royal subject or anything.

Now there's a lot of "don't-knows" in that little story, but that goddamn student is in the lab at an hour that I wouldn't consider normal working hours (on the weekend, no less), so it's probably safe to say that he/she's been working on that experiment for quite some time or simply just having a bad luck of getting elbowed all the time so there's no other hours available. Imagine waiting for a time slot in a lab and then when you're finally can get some work done, it's suddenly getting ripped apart by someone who has already elbowed your time many times over. If I were in that position, I would be considerably pissed and very likely to do something about it.

The point being, even if you're Einstein and Newton incarnate combined, you have no right whatsoever to do whatever you please to anyone else. Lederman should have the decency of helping the student to put his/her experiment back to the way it was before, it's very plausible that he has the ability to. However, judging from his tone of no regret in the interview, most likely he didn't care and just left the student to pick up the pieces of his brilliant experiment.

Re:Changes over time? (1)

Antique Geekmeister (740220) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298709)

You're fairly lucky. These days, the "disassembly" goes on at resource allocation and funding time. Your equipment money goes to buy a professor a laptop, or to send some favored colleague to a conference to do a presentation and keep them on the tenure track, and you never even get to hear about it (Unless you're like me and had to fix their email, meaning they sent you the bounce messages or gave you deliberate access to their mail spool to fix it.)

I hope Lederman did help the student out later, I really do.

Re:Changes over time? (1)

PopeRatzo (965947) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298813)

Hell I'm a grad student and I don't get treated like that.

You're fairly lucky.

I'll say he's lucky. Most grad students get treated the way a colleague of mine treats his more attractive female grad students. Except without the tenderness and condoms. And no breakfast or cab fare home.

Seriously, the treatment of grad students is something that bothers me about academia. Some of it comes from professors having been treated the same way when they were grad students, so now they feel obliged to pass the shit along. But I've known profs who will kick some research assistant just because they can.

I was lucky and had a sweet old dude as an advisor, who also happened to be department chair, and he looked out for his grad students. Hell, he even fed us occasionally, which when you're living on $1.25 per day is a real treat.

Re:Changes over time? (3, Insightful)

bidule (173941) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297659)

Bullshit!

Genious is about using the spark when you have it. If you come in at 9 and take off just past 5 you're nothing but a corporate drone. I've worked both side and let myself be bogged down by administrativia to know that this is the best way to kill inventiveness.

If you don't have the guts to risk a sleepless night and spend a week restoring the damage you have done to the lab, you don't deserve to find answers.

Your self-righteousness is the true mark of self-important bureaucrats.

Re:Changes over time? (5, Insightful)

bladesjester (774793) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297681)

Actually it's a matter of ethics. If you can't expect someone to do something properly on the small scale, how can you trust them to do the right thing on a large scale?

Them destroying the ongoing work of another person just to save themselves a little bit of work shows a supreme lack of not only ethics but of decency.

Science is more than just a result on a data sheet. It's also the path you take to get there (if you decide it is proper to go there at all).

Re:Changes over time? (2, Interesting)

Antique Geekmeister (740220) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298289)

It does make me wonder what else they cannibalized from other people's work. Perhaps a review of these gentlemen's papers for plagiarism is in order? Or perhaps the grad student should keep an eye on their fiscal behavior and rat them out to the IRS?

Re:Changes over time? (2, Interesting)

Cyberax (705495) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298519)

"To steal from one author is plagiarism, if you steal from many, it's research." :)

Re:Changes over time? (1)

cnettel (836611) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298531)

It all happened in 1957... I think we are almost at the point where we can consider this just a funny anecdote.

Re:Changes over time? (1)

Antique Geekmeister (740220) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298695)

True. But it's a lesson to remember: stealing research and materials from graduate students is far, far too common a practice. And it teaches the grad students to themselves steal research and materials from the next generation. I've had too many friends whose research was stolen by advisors or whose experiments were ruined by another professor in the same group "appropriating" their equipment, reserved laboratory time on expensive systems, or even their funding.

Fascinating science with poor equipment is great to do: but stealing equipment should not be encouraged.

Re:Changes over time? (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19298613)

Them destroying the ongoing work of another person just to save themselves a little bit of work shows a supreme lack of not only ethics but of decency.

I think this is getting a little blown out of proportion. The other person in this case is not an unrelated party. The downtrodden grad student was working at Lederman's direction, using equipment provided by Lederman, on projects set to Lederman's priorities. If Lederman decides, a 6pm on Friday night, that his priorities now favor a different direction, then it seems to me that he should be free to extract from his studen't apparatus whatever detector, emmiter, or ring stand he needed.

It would have been appropriate to offer some explanation to the student. Probably better to invite the student to participate in the new experiment (oh look, student is an author on the paper. I guess he did.), but the lab director is completely within his rights to modify the project direction to adapt to new information.

Person (4, Funny)

Mark_MF-WN (678030) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298693)

They didn't destroy the work of a person, they destroyed the work of a graduate student. There's a difference.

Re:Changes over time? (1)

kevinadi (191992) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297689)

I believe the question is, did he actually repair the damage that he had done? Or he simply used the grad student's experiment because he thinks that a student's experiment is expendable and unimportant?

Re:Changes over time? (5, Insightful)

Bodrius (191265) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297763)

Risking someone else's sleepless nights is not a matter of genius and guts, or avoiding bureaucracy.

It is a matter of being an asshole, genius or not.

I agree with you about the 9-5, and the need to grasp inspiration on the spot to keep creativity alive.
But that is no excuse to trample over other people's work without asking for their permission / collaboration.

You may be very convinced of your own genius and inventiveness. Good for you.
But you might as well be destroying more important, time-consuming, work by other geniuses in the room.

If you don't have the guts to work the extra sleepless night setting up your own experiment, or (gasp) actually asking for the help if needed, then you really didn't deserve to find the answer.

Re:Changes over time? (1)

servognome (738846) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298123)

Your self-righteousness is the true mark of self-important bureaucrats.
That remark reflects the arrogance of "genious." Did it ever occur to you that the bureaucracy exists because unchecked inventiveness, can do more harm than good. Or that "corporate drones" come in at 9 and leave past 5 because they have responsibilities, like taking care of their kids.
I also get annoyed at the corporate hoop jumping to get something done, but I've also been on the other side of things cleaning up the mess of somebody who decided to ignore the system.

I couldn't agree more !!! (1)

Elusive_Cure (645428) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298439)

If you don't have the guts to risk a sleepless night and spend a week restoring the damage you have done to the lab, you don't deserve to find answers. Tht said it all man...

Re:Changes over time? (1)

suv4x4 (956391) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297705)

The thing about their story that got me was the fact that they decided they absolutely had to do this *right now* at 2am just to satisfy their own curiosity and were so self-absorbed that they killed the work a grad student had done in that particular lab in order to cannibalize his experiments so they didn't have to build everything themselves.

I don't get it: Fermilabs has published this story themselves, without any mention of how this student was compensated for having his work lost.

Is this what they really want to send as a message across: "come here to have your hard work randomly cannibalized by 'smart scientists' passing by"?

Even worse, the guy's a former director of Fermilab.

Re:Changes over time? (1)

bladesjester (774793) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297919)

Judging from the fact that they didn't even *name* the graduate student whose work was so important to them that they just had to take it apart and use it, I'd say they probably didn't compensate him at all.

I've known a number of PhD's and while some of them were very cool and worked with the other people in the building, there have been more than a few who thought that their work was the most important thing in the world and that it didn't matter what they did to get where they were going.

I'll let you guess what my opinion of the second of those groups is.

The "mysterious" grad student's name. (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19298091)

The name of Lederman's graduate assistant was Marcel Weinrich, which Lederman does credit as working with him on the project. Lederman, Garwin and Weinrich are all on the paper confirming the results on parity violation.

Re:Changes over time? (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297927)

Couldn't the author of the slashdot post have at leased used the cut and paste features of his computer?
Perhaps if the author had bought his cut-and-paste feature new rather than leasing a used one, it would've worked properly. I'm guessing the previous owner broke it.

Re:Changes over time? (1)

noidentity (188756) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298081)

"Couldn't the author of the slashdot post have at least used the cut and paste features of his computer?"

If you cut and paste, it's theft! Retyping, on the other hand...

Re:Changes over time? (2)

drawfour (791912) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298157)

Couldn't the author of the slashdot post have at leased used the cut and paste features of his computer?
It's copy and paste -- when you cut and paste something, you remove it from one document and put it in another (or from one paragraph to another). When you copy and paste, it stays in the original place and a copy is placed in the second.

Sorry. It annoys me.

Typo in summary (2, Informative)

achurch (201270) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297347)

s/now/not/

Though I like the parent's suggestion better . . .

But what happened to the... (4, Funny)

bluemonq (812827) | more than 7 years ago | (#19296997)

...chewing gum wrapper?! Everybody knows that MacGuyver would use a chewing gum wrapper!

Re:But what happened to the... (4, Funny)

MillionthMonkey (240664) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297143)

A chewing gum wrapper rotates the polarization of light that passes through it.

You can prove this with two polarizers at right angles if you crumple up a piece of chewing gum wrapper and stick it between them. When held up to a light source, only the light that goes through through the chewing gum wrapper makes it through the second polarizer- the rest is all dark. And since the rotation is frequency dependent, the chewing gum wrapper is glowing in multiple colors. Especially if you do a good job when you crumple it up. It would look great on TV.

Re:But what happened to the... (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297747)

That's the cellophane around the entire packet, not the wax paper with the actual gum in it. The ones on cigarette packs work too.

Re:But what happened to the... (1)

trolltalk.com (1108067) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297183)

From stuff on anyone's shopping list? Wait until you see MY shopping list ...

That's what you get for using dime-store equipment - not enough precision to tell you sh*t.

Everyone "knows" real science takes lots of government funding. Now to write up a proposal (note to self: remember to include the code phrase "intelligent design" and some mumbo jumbo about crytpo-analysis and terrorism). Like I said, just wait until you see MY shopping list. And yes, we do so need those 72" udf monitors!

./ed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297001)

that was quick

Doctor Who (5, Insightful)

thoughtlover (83833) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297017)

So, I'm watching Doctor Who and someone asks, "Who is this guy?" and the reply's always the same, "He's the Doctor."

So I think to myself, "How does this guy always get out of these crazy situations?

"He's like some time-traveling MacGyver," I think to myself as I switch over to trusty, old Slashdot, only to see that same name right off.

Re:Doctor Who (4, Informative)

The13thDr (1108245) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297523)

You know there is a reason for that similarity, right? Terry Nation (creator of Dr. Who's Daleks) was a producer and writer during MacGyver's first two seasons.

Re:Doctor Who (4, Insightful)

ColaMan (37550) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298051)

"He's like some time-traveling MacGyver," I think to myself

Blasphemer!

Dr. Who is not like some time-travelling MacGyver, MacGyver is like some temporally-impaired Dr. Who.

There's a hell of a difference.

Re:Doctor Who (1)

fan of lem (1092395) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298733)

And don't forget the mullet.

The original hardware store experiment (5, Funny)

edwardpickman (965122) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297023)

Isn't about time some one confirmed the cat, box and pistol experiment? Schrödinger Cat has been living on borrowed time long enough.

Re:The original hardware store experiment (5, Funny)

SpottedKuh (855161) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297063)

Schrödinger Cat has been living on borrowed time long enough.

Or has it?

Re:The original hardware store experiment (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297095)

>> Schrödinger Cat has been living on borrowed time long enough.

> Or has it?

Maybe.

Re:The original hardware store experiment (1)

greg_barton (5551) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297411)

Or has it?

Yes.

No.

Re:The original hardware store experiment (4, Interesting)

ookabooka (731013) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297435)

Or has it?

Ever wonder why the cat doesn't count as an observer? What does it feel like to be alive and dead at the same time? Do you have to have a soul to observe life or death?

Re:The original hardware store experiment (1)

SocialWorm (316263) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297611)

This has actually led to some interesting thought. I point to the Quantum Suicide Wikipedia article.

Re:The original hardware store experiment (4, Interesting)

SocialWorm (316263) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297625)

...or at least I tried to, and the link even appeared in the preview, but somehow it got eaten: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_suicide [wikipedia.org]

Re:The original hardware store experiment (4, Informative)

someone1234 (830754) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297811)

I guess, even a light particle would count as observer. If I understood the concept, the whole setup is just symbolic and wouldn't work at all.

Re:The original hardware store experiment (1)

ultracool (883965) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298715)

If I understood the concept, the whole setup is just symbolic and wouldn't work at all.

Well hello Captain Obvious!

Re:The original hardware store experiment (4, Funny)

nih (411096) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298409)

Do you have to have a soul to observe life or death?
considering that the 'soul' doesn't exist, then no

Re:The original hardware store experiment (2, Informative)

master_p (608214) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298525)

When they say 'observer', they don't mean a physical observer, but a photon that is used to measure the effect. The wave function collapses as soon as a photon is used to measure the position/momentum of another particle.

Re:The original hardware store experiment (5, Funny)

arpy (587497) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297145)

We appear to have Schrödingered their web server: We all went to look and now it's dead.

Re:The original hardware store experiment (1)

Wordsmith (183749) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297265)

I couldn't decide whether to mod you funny or write - but I opted for the latter, just to tell you that made me grin so hard it hurt. That and the sunburn.

Re:The original hardware store experiment (3, Informative)

edwardpickman (965122) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297775)

Funny. It seems alive to half of us? Try logging in again and see if you get a different result. Look on the brightside. At least you don't have to catch another cat to retry this experiment. We're starting to run short in my neighborhood.

Re:The original hardware store experiment (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297453)

Going by the smell, I observed that it died of starvation sometime last week.

The Slashdot Supercollider (1)

reverseengineer (580922) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297025)

In honor of Leon Lederman, /. just sent a massive muon neutrino pulse to the Symmetry Magazine servers.

big deal (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297029)

I once used spaghetti, vaseline, plastic wrap, and an ovaltine jar to make a synthetic pussy. But you don't see me bragging about it.

Re:big deal (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297047)

Was the spaghetti to simulate your noodle?

Re:big deal (1)

rustalot42684 (1055008) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297059)

No way, dude. Apple pie is where it's at.

Re:big deal (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297185)

Spaghetti? Er, cooked or uncooked? It's important to me to know. Hurry.

I wonder what MacGyver uses. Of course, it only has to last for three minutes.

Re:big deal (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297699)

Cooked, unless you're into the sadomasochism thing.

Re:big deal (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297233)

I tried that. It was ok, but not as good as using a section of PVC pipe and a balloon. The only time I've felt anything better was barebacking a girl while on ecstasy and viagra.

You know you're reading /. (4, Funny)

Opportunist (166417) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297883)

...when something like this is modded "informative"...

Tells you something about the audience.

Re:big deal (2, Funny)

Blighten (992637) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297949)

I once used spaghetti, vaseline, plastic wrap, and an ovaltine jar to make a synthetic pussy. But you don't see me bragging about it.


Sounds like a strange way to run the Schrödinger cat experiment.... any interesting results?

Re:big deal (4, Funny)

StarfishOne (756076) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298321)

".. any interesting results?"

All possible girlfriend wave functions collapsed instantly! :P

Re:big deal (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19298083)

I once used spaghetti, vaseline, plastic wrap, and an ovaltine jar to make a synthetic pussy. But you don't see me bragging about it.


You should publish the plans. Some people I know are using course sandpaper, sweetbreads, or even an old piece of liver, whatever sex props their last girlfriend left behind.

Re:big deal (3, Insightful)

gaderael (1081429) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298303)

I can understand where you're coming from with the vaseline, the plastic wrap, and the Ovaltine jar. What disturbs me is the unknown idea in your head as to what you'd be using the spagetti for. Unless of course you want to "eat out" the synthetic pussy, and the taste of vaseline and Ovaltine just doesn't do it for ya.

I've put more thought into this than I really should have.

***Oh, how perfect, the word in the image I have to type to submit my post is insert.***

When I was in school (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297043)

attached to projects involved with materials experiments in very low atmospheric pressures, they all had one thing in common. They appared to run on aluminum foil. Now there is a reason for this, it's not sexy. But in a lot of circumstances, the foil would make it easier to reach an maintain low pressures which of course are critical. sometimes the improvement could be an order of magnitude or two maybe even more.

MacGyver Physics According To Engineers... (4, Funny)

creimer (824291) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297081)

The real trick is to do it with duct tape and baling wire.

MacGyver's resourcefulness was secondary... (1)

Nymz (905908) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297175)

The technicians and engineers from the article share MacGyver's attitude, which is their primary asset.

An optimist sees a task in every problem.
A pessimist sees a problem in every task.

E4! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297161)

The Article (server /.'d) (4, Informative)

Ironix (165274) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297275)

volume 03 issue 08/09 oct/nov 06
Masters of Improv
Photo: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab

World-class detective Angus MacGyver of the hit 1980s television show MacGyver could jury-rig almost anything with duct tape and a pocket knife. High-energy physics labs demand as much and more from technicians and engineers, relying on their creativity and intelligence to navigate technical quagmires. And when a problem demands it, they deliver--engineering tiny cameras mounted on bocce balls that snake through 10,000 feet of steel piping; rigging a 13-ton cement block to bash deformed brass into shape; or aiming a high-powered laser around corners to unblock water lines. Unlike MacGyver's fixes--such as the fuse he repaired with a chewing-gum wrapper--some of these devices last.

An improvised grinder
An improvised grinder sanded welds along the long, straight sections of 10,000 feet of pipe at Fermilab. The sander within the rotating silver cylinder cleaned each weld.

Photo: Fred Ullrich, Fermilab

Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize-winning former director of Fermilab, is a legendary lab MacGyver. He used a pocket knife, tape, and items on anyone's grocery list to confirm that interactions involving the weak force do not show perfect mirror symmetry, or parity, as scientists had long assumed. Just as a watch hand always sweeps clockwise, nuclei of atoms eject electrons in a preferred direction as they decay, rather than spraying them randomly. The technical term for this is "parity violation."

Intrigued by the experiments of Madame Chien-Shiung Wu, Lederman called his friend, Richard Garwin, to propose an experiment that would detect parity violation in the decay of the pi meson particle. That evening in January 1957, Lederman and Garwin raced to Columbia's Nevis laboratory and immediately began rearranging a graduate student's experiment into one they could use. "It was 6 p.m. on a Friday, and without explanation, we took the student's experiment apart," Lederman later recalled in an interview. "He started crying, as he should have."

The men knew they were onto something big. "We had an idea and we wanted to make it work as quickly as we could--we didn't look at niceties," Lederman said. And, indeed, niceties were overlooked. A coffee can supported a wooden cutting board, on which rested a Lucite cylinder cut from an orange juice bottle. A can of Coca-Cola propped up a device for counting electron emissions, and Scotch tape held it all together.

"Without the Swiss Army Knife, we would've been hopeless," Lederman said. "That was our primary tool."

Their first attempt, at 2 a.m., showed parity violation the instant before the Lucite cylinder--wrapped with wires to generate the magnetic field--melted.

"We had the effect, but it went away when the instrument broke," Lederman said. "We spent hours and hours fixing and rearranging the experiment. In due course, we got the thing going, we got the effect back, and it was an enormous effect. By six o'clock in the morning, we were able to call people and tell them that the laws of parity violate mirror symmetry," confirming the results of experiments led by Wu at Columbia University the month before.

Another giant figure in physics, founding Fermilab director Robert Wilson, is the hero of a widely circulated tale.

MacGyver-mania
MacGyver aired in more than 40 countries between 1985 and 1992, in some cases leaving a lasting imprint on the local language. In South Korea, for instance, call a knife a "Maekgaibeo kal" and people know you mean the Swiss Army-type knife the TV character carried. Malaysians call their pocket knives "Pisau MacGyvers" or just plain "MacGyver knives." In Norway and parts of Finland, duct tape is sometimes called "MacGyver tape."

Ernie Malamud, a physicist at Fermilab, remembers working with Wilson during his graduate studies at Cornell. The pair wanted to use helium gas, often used to fill balloons, to locate a leak in the glass vacuum chamber; but they discovered the hose from the helium supply wouldn't reach the area where they perceived the leak to be. Wilson filled his mouth with helium from the hose, ran to the tank and blew on a gasket to find the leak. He turned to Malamud and grinned.

"This typifies to me everything great about the man: his decisiveness, his knowledge, his originality, and a 'can do' attitude," Malamud says.

Changing times
With today's expensive and complex experiments, there's less room for spontaneity. A solution often involves a team of MacGyvers, long hours of strategic planning, and lots of execution time.

Safety is of the utmost importance, and today's problem-solvers carefully review their unconventional fixes to make sure they aren't hazardous.

"High-energy physics is becoming a very industrialized science with projects lasting for years, so elegant solutions are possible," says Dmitri Denisov, spokesperson for Fermilab's DZero experiment. "It's strongly inadvisable to do anything unapproved in government-funded labs. Yes, some fun of doing science is gone. But taking into account the size and complexity of the experiments, this is the right way to proceed."

Technicians and engineers continue the tradition today, albeit more carefully, finding clever solutions to problems of ever-increasing complexity. Duane Plant, senior operations specialist in the Accelerator Division at Fermilab, is one such MacGyver.

"One of the things that Duane is known for is figuring out that something's going to be a problem before anyone else does," says Patrick Hurh, who works in the division's Mechanical Support Department. "He's invaluable for that. He's a really inventive, creative scientist."

His specialty: designing and building, along with partner Todd Johnson, tiny cameras for tricky fixes. "In my office, I've got 10 different cameras to look at things," Plant says. His cameras go where humans can't: one inched along thousands of feet of pipe to survey microbe corrosion, making way for a string of bocce balls and a cylindrical weld grinder to sand and clean offending welds. Plant is loath to take credit for his ingenuity, which over the years has included identifying a snow plow as the cause of disturbances in the Tevatron beam and using a toy dart to open the insides of some magnets for inspection.

"You kludge things together using what you have lying around," he says. "At the lunch table, we can fix anything. Our lunch table has come up with more solutions than we could on our own."

Kludges that last
Some kludge jobs are used only once; others, such as a brass-bashing technique used at Stanford Linear Accelerator center, can be recycled.

In 2002, Jim Krebs, chief mechanical engineer for SLAC's BaBar detector, was helping install one-ton brass plates in the detector when he and his team realized that one of the plates was too bowed to fit. Krebs came up with an inelegant but clever solution.

"I remembered visiting a steel factory in Gary, Indiana, years before, where they flattened bowed steel plates with concrete," he says. "I watched them do it for a while and it was pretty crude."

Nevertheless, Krebs thought the technique would work perfectly for his deformed brass. He supported the plate with beams and shims, and used a crane to lower a 13-ton concrete block onto the bent portion. One hour and a few tries later, the brass plate was flat and the crew slipped it into position. When the opposite problem occurred in 2004, Krebs and others used the same method on a flat plate that needed bending.

At Fermilab, a string of balls navigated tight corners within the pipes to clean welds out of the weld grinder's reach.

Photo: Fred Ullrich, Fermilab

Some inspired techniques become permanent fixtures. And some work so well they spread beyond their original homes--such as the aspirin tablets used to detect water leaks in the radio frequency cavities of accelerators.

These RF cavities, which are used to boost the particle energy in accelerators, contain cooling systems that are prone to leakage over time. It's important to detect small leaks before they become big enough to damage equipment. But detecting teaspoons of water in a cavity that could hold many gallons is difficult.

Each cavity has two holes in the bottom to drain accumulated water. To detect a leak, technicians cap the outsides of the holes with aspirin tablets, which are held in place by spring-loaded switches. When water seeps through a hole and dissolves the aspirin, the switch clicks, indicating a leak. In most cases, leaks are found before any damage is done.

"This was started so many years ago that the names of the original technicians and engineers who invented the treatment are lost in history," Plant says. "But the practice lives on, and I understand other labs have used this idea."

Success and satisfaction
Legendary stories like Lederman's and Wilson's may be few, but engineering triumphs abound. Satisfaction often comes not with formal recognition, but with the success of an unconventional solution--such as Doug Glenzinski's epoxy-blasting lasers, which restored an overheating portion of Fermilab's then-newly installed CDF detector.

"Everything we did was at the very brink of possible," says Glenzinski, who worked with a small team on the project in 2001. "At every stage, we would think, 'Oh, God. How are we going to do this?' Each subsequent stage seemed more difficult. It was very challenging, but in the end it was fun because we succeeded."

First, the team wriggled custom-ordered bore scopes--long, thin fiber-optic cables commonly used in surgery--into the thin cooling lines of the silicon detector to identify areas where epoxy had leaked out of joints and blocked water flow. The next challenge was to clear the epoxy globs without damaging the aluminum cooling lines. The team snaked a flexible laser fiber into the tubes and attached a prism at the end so they could aim the laser around corners. Reflections viewed on an oscilloscope allowed them to distinguish the epoxy clots from the aluminum tube before blasting the epoxy away. The whole process took two years of intermittent work, but the lines have worked perfectly ever since.

The fix was so seamless that the former blockages are undetectable today.

"The new people who have joined the CDF collaboration didn't know about the epoxy blockage until we mentioned it later," Glenzinski says. "I think that's a good definition of success."

Lucite orange juice bottle? (1)

madeye the younger (318275) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297825)

..."a Lucite cylinder cut from an orange juice bottle"...

PET I'd believe, but Lucite? Who the hell makes bottles out of Lucite? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acrylic_glass [wikipedia.org]

Re:Lucite orange juice bottle? (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297971)

A hint from TFA (my emph.): "That evening in January 1957..."

MacGyver and physics don't mesh (3, Interesting)

syousef (465911) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297319)

Hey I love MacGyver. I watched it as a kid and now I watch the DVDs with my fiancee who has fond memories of watching the show with her grandmother as a kid. However that doesn't stop me wincing at how bad the physics (and all the science is) in that show. Anyway it's not MacGyver physics unless there's a baddie waiting in the wings to kill MacGyver and the "experiment" foils their plan to do so, preferably causing the bad guy to fall flat on his ass or be blown up.

Seriously though. Why associate ingenuity with a tv show (even if it's a good one)? It's like describing math breakthroughs as "reminiscent of the TV show 'Numbers'". These shows are inspired by the real science more than they inspire it.

Re:MacGyver and physics don't mesh (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297493)

Some time ago I read an article about the science advisor for the show, IIRC a metallurgist. He said they made sure there was some critical thing missing to make sure that some kid doesn't go duplicate some dangerous thing in the show. So, it's a feature, not a bug.

Re:MacGyver and physics don't mesh (3, Insightful)

aztektum (170569) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297997)

They are simply referencing the premise of a show. You know how you just said you fondly remember watching the show as a kid? Perhaps these guys do too. All the while realizing the fact that said show made no excuse for its hooky interpretation of the rule of physics. They solved a physics puzzle with on-hand parts and said "Hey we're like MacGyver!"

It's why Superman can fly and stop trains by standing on the tracks and letting them slam into him with his hands out in front. People don't care about E=mc2 when they want to be entertained. The opposite is also true. No one cares if MacGyver's physics were accurate, it just was like "Whoa all MacGyver and shit!"

Oblig Simpsons Quote (4, Funny)

Hoi Polloi (522990) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297331)

Patty & Selma: "Love me, love MacGyver."

They used a student's experiment (2, Insightful)

syousef (465911) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297349)

Since when was some poor student's experiment on people's weekly grocery list. Yes they used everyday items to modify the experiment which they took apart (causing the student to cry but apparently they weren't interested in "niceties").

Just like MacGyver. Look how MacGvyer creates a nuclear reaction with just this hammer, chisel, coke bottle, string, 300mL of acetone....oh and a nuclear reactor.

Re:They used a student's experiment (1)

bladesjester (774793) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297511)

I posted something similar above.

All I can say to suppliment my previous statement is that if the scientists don't have the ethics to not destroy someone else's work in order to further themselves, how can we trust them to be ethical with the really big stuff?

The old Ian Malcom quote from Jurassic Park comes to mind - "Your scientists were so busy seeing whether or not they could, they never stopped to think if they *should*."

Re:They used a student's experiment (1)

ccoder (468480) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297555)

Its not McGyver, its General O'Neil, and he used an zed-pm :)

Dear MacGyver- (5, Funny)

Vituperator (863044) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297421)

Dear MacGyver-

Enclosed is a rubber band, a paper clip, and a drinking straw. Please save my dog.

Re:Dear MacGyver- (5, Funny)

revolu7ion (994315) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297601)

Dear Vituperator,
Please find your dog attached. Don't thank me - thank the moon's gravitational pull.

Sincerely
MacGyver

mod uvp (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297441)

join in. it 3an be engineering project

My schtick (4, Interesting)

stox (131684) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297545)

When repairing some of the main computing systems, at Fermilab, I would joke that I needed a rubber chicken to repair the problem quickly, otherwise it would take a few hours. The one Christmas, one of the Ops staff bought me a pair of them. From then on, the joke was, when called at 3AM in the morning, did I have my chickens handy?

Anti-matter (0)

Breakfast Pants (323698) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297553)

It should be noted that parity is preserved; it just turns out that the opposite version occurs in anti-matter.

They need someone to MacGyver the server (1)

Blackeagle_Falcon (784253) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297587)

I'm sure he could overcome the /. effect with nothing more than bubblegum, a paperclip, and a Swiss Army knife.

linux? (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297599)

it's still for fags.

Hmnn... well latex paint works great as a bandage (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19297627)

Hmnn... well latex paint also works great as a bandage, for burns and cuts... as I can just see where this is going.

Of course. (4, Funny)

FlyingSquidStudios (1031284) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297789)

I always knew it was MacGyver physics that made the Stargate work!

Macgyver: The college years! (3, Funny)

Spy der Mann (805235) | more than 7 years ago | (#19297873)

Alright, I couldn't resist. SOMEBODY had to do it.

(warning: rated PG-13)

Episode 1 [youtube.com]

Episode 2 [youtube.com]

Bending spacetime in the basement (2, Informative)

DiamondGeezer (872237) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298089)

I don't know if this is mentioned in the article above (which appears to be slashdotted) but here's a scientist showing the force of gravity by creating a torsion balance using a ladder, fishing line and a few extras including two boules. (Yes, they're spelled 'boules')

Bending spacetime in the basement" [fourmilab.ch]

Check out the timelapse movies at the bottom of the page to see gravity in action.

Extemporaneous and unconventional solutions to the (1)

dsaklad (162420) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298673)

A number of people are studying an extemporaneous and unconventional solution to the problem of sorting gmail alphabetically by subject, by author, by size and sorting out messages by the first word or first string of characters of the subject. What hints, tips or pointers on how you believe it could be done have any of you kind folks out there for an extemporaneous and unconventional solution to sorting gmail?...

Of course there's always Dick Feynman... (4, Interesting)

jpellino (202698) | more than 7 years ago | (#19298817)

... at the Rogers Commission hearings.
C-clamp: $1.79
Styrofoam cup of ice water: $.50
Watching the expressions on the faces of NASA scientists who had inconclusive data from millions of dollars of testing? Priceless.

Also he allegedly was the only person to see the Trinity blast - as he figured the auto windshield glass would protect him from the UV, just as long as he ducked before the blast wave hit the glass.

Plus the one about Enrico Fermi at Trinity: he put some pieces of paper on the ground, scraped their start and finish positions in the sand with his toe, and based on the distance moved, the paper mass, and the distance to the blast, estimated the yield pretty darn close for that method.

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