Sayonara Cyclotron

Sayonara Cyclotron

Physics teacher Alfred Bender with Stuyvesant High School cyclotron.

Today’s New York Times notes that Columbia University is junking its 70-year-old cyclotron particle accelerator or “atom smasher,” a device to speed up charged sub-atomic particles and slam them into stuff to see what happens. It is now merely 30 tons of graffiti-covered junk in the basement of Pupin Hall.

I can’t recall if I actually saw the cyclotron in the basement of New York’s Stuyvesant High School but I took comfort in the fact that it was there. My classmates could tinker with it and their rubber-banded stacks of computer punchcards and somehow keep our nation safe from the Sputnik-spinning space invaders of the Soviet Union.

Six Stuyvesant students designed and started building the cyclotron in 1956 -57. It was completed in 1961 for $10,000, with funding assistance from the Hebrew Technical Institute and Board of Education and in-kind contributions from major corporations. One of those six students, Martin Gersten, personally asked General Sarnoff for the huge vacuum tubes required, and recalls that the big iron bars were machined up at Columbia’s Pupin Hall.

Sayonara Cyclotron

Results of a 1962 low-power test allowed the school to declare that it had a working cyclotron; a full-power test resulted in a neighborhood power black-out. Hopes of producing medical isotopes for nearby Beth Israel Hospital faded. Neighbors sighed in relief; their nightmares of high school boys with atomic bombs ceased.

Martin Paull (Stuyvesant HS Class of 1964) Architect/teacher, Southern California Institute of Architecture, UCLA:

There were problems with the vacuum in the chamber, the DC supply . . . etc. I really can’t remember when it was “finished” but I think it might have been as late as 1964. There were plans to make isotopes for Beth Israel Hospital. To my knowledge, it never worked. But it was a wonderful project and the idea that at 14 years old I had worked on an atom smasher has stayed with me always.

Abraham Baumel, Stuyvesant principal ’83–1994:

When I came to Stuyvesant all that remained of the cyclotron were remnants of things . . . . Most everything had been cannibalized. But I can tell you with certainty that it never worked at Stuyvesant any more than it did for Ernest Orland Lawrence, and he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his invention of the cyclotron. The Russians never succeeded in getting one to work, either.

Stuyvesant seai; teams are the politically-incorrect Peglegs

Images from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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