Thursday, April 13, 2006

Hell is Frozen Over (with Liquid Helium)

This week has been absolutely hellish. For those of you who like science, continue. For those who have no interest on my scientific endeavors, come back in a couple of days.

The time in the lab is divided into several phases with one complete cycle lasting roughly six weeks. Some of us who do materials synthesis (not so much me anymore now that I have my masters) make samples. Others communicate with collaborators to get samples sent to us. When we've amassed enough samples that we want to do magnetic measurements on, I call up my pal Kirby at the local gas and cryogenic liquid supply company and order enough liquid helium to cool our magnet for roughly 10-12 days. This is 200 liters that arrive in 100 liter dewars 5 days apart. I am the helium girl because Kirby used to yell at everyone, but likes to flirt with me. I endure shameless flirtation for several minutes before placing the order. Who says there's equality among the sexes in science?

When the liquid helium arrives, we transfer about 70-80 liters into our superconducting magnet and have about 20-30 liters left to top off the magnet over the next couple days. Then a few days later we'll get 100 more liters to top off the magnet several more times. When there is helium in the magnet, we are required to do experiments around the clock. Helium evaporates off night and day, so we musn't waste any of it. Luckily some of the experiments are automated so we can usually do overnight experiments from around 9 pm to 7 am or so.

After the 10 days we have helium are up, everyone takes a deep breath and starts processing and analyzing 10 days worth of data collection. We have to figure out what it all means. We interpret our results and if necessary contact our collaborators to discuss what we have found. At that point we decide what results are interesting enough to be published and start the long process of gathering literature and writing a paper. In the meantime, make samples, get samples, etc.

The problem with this routine is that we get helium infrequently enough that we never really get in a groove. We just kind of run around like chickens with our heads cut off. We're dropping stuff, accidently freezing equipment, screwing up our initial experiments and repeating them. It's pretty much utter choas for two weeks. The helium came yetserday and I think we were shorted by 10 or 20 liters. I say "I think" because helium measurement has been a sore spot for Kirby and me. He doesn't believe that our method for measuring the helium levels in the dewar is very accurate. I have come dangerously close to playing the graduate degree card on him, but I get too nervous.

Anyway, we are short helium, which is going to cut into our experiment time. I have one particular experiment that I am an expert at but happens to be quite tedious. I ran this experiment on one sample for 11 hours yesterday, which yielded inconclusive results. Today I ran the same experiment on 3 samples for one of my labmates. I decided that rather than trusting this person with my equipment, I would just do it myself. Okay, to all you perverts: that's a freebie for reading til the end.

Tomorrow will be more of the same.


mom said...

i hate when the helium comes too. i know my daughter will be busy, often short tempered, tired, stressed... even MY coworkers know about this hellish time, when they say how's natalie doing, and i say the helium's in, they say "OH, SORRY!"

dancingo4 said...

S M R T (ala Ralph Wiggum)

I'm glad I stuck it out for the pervy statement at the end.

Runner Girl FL said...

Yeah...I know that those weeks I have to just wait to see if she can make Friday Lunch Bunch. The best is when she says she doesn't think she will make it and then she is there smiling waiting for me. Unfortunately that means something didn't work in the lab but Good for me!! :)

Jackie said...

I can just imagine what a nightmare that would be.

Here's hoping the Helium goes well the rest of the time.

brainhell said...

Are you concerned about the impending global helium shortage? I think that Kitby is shorting you, but the only way for you to prevent it is for you to be there, in person, in a negligee.

magnetbabe said...

I was going to write something snide like "If YOU hate ite when the helium comes imagine being on this end!" But I think it is actually worse on you than me. You poor ladies don't get the high associated with good results or the satisfaction of crawling into bed after 12 hours of experiments. You just get the cranky magnetbabe on the phone once in a while. Sorry!

Just like global warming, the global helium shortage is a lie perpetrated by scientists to get more funding money. And I'm all for giving my body for a scientific cause, I guess I just thought I'd have to be dead first...