October 07, 2010

An MOT for the TARDIS?

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/images/warwickscience

The machine

The recent announcement of the award of the Nobel Prize for physics to two researchers based at Manchester University has prompted me to assert the scientific credentials of our own institution. This splendid photograph from the University Archive is one of a number we currently have on display both on-line at the above address and in the showcases in the Modern Records Centre foyer. The details we have on some of these are sketchy so perhaps scientific alumni can provide further enlightenment to a mere arts graduate like myself.

We have put on the display as part of the national Archives Awareness Campaign on the theme of 'Discovery - archives in science, technology and medicine". Another strand to this is Pioneers, our exhibition of archives about innovators in science and technology, including Sir Frank Whittle of jet engine fame.

Apologies for the frivolous heading for this picture. This is actually the crossed beam instrument used in the study of the detailed reaction dynamics of gas-phase ion molecule reactions in the Department of Chemistry and Molecular Sciences. Minding the machine (we think) are Dr David Hirst, a member of the department from 1965 to 2003, Martin Jarrold and Keith Birkinshaw (on the left).

Update, July 2011: Having come across this 'blog' entry, Keith has kindly provided us with the following information about the instrument and how it came to Warwick:

The photograph shows a crossed ion-molecule beam ‘machine’ built originally at Shell’s Thornton Research Centre. It allowed a detailed study of collisions between single ions and molecules but experiments required much care and attention to detail because the scattered ion intensity was very low. In 1976 there were several such machines around the world but none working in the UK. Professor Keith R Jennings at Warwick University asked me if I would be interested in taking over the Shell Thornton machine in the Warwick Dept of Molecular Sciences (now Chemistry), after I had worked in Prague from 1972 to 1974 with Dr Zdenek Herman (a leader in crossed-beam research). After examining the machine and talking to John Rosenfeld at Shell I arranged for it to be dismantled and moved to Warwick (1976). I worked for about a year until it was functioning and then was joined by a PhD student Martin Jarrold. David Hirst was a theoretical chemist and the permanent member of university staff assigned to the project but did not get involved in the research.

In 1978 I was offered a permanent position in the Physics Department of the University of Wales Aberystwyth which I accepted. When Martin Jarrold left Warwick I believe there was insufficient expertise to continue running the experiment successfully.

Collisions and reactions between atoms and molecules were of great interest from a fundamental research perspective and also because they occur widely in nature. Collisions between uncharged atoms and molecules were difficult to carry out, partly because of detection of the low intensity scattered products. However, ion-molecule collisions can be studied more easily since ions can be dispersed according to mass, energy, velocity etc. using magnetic and electric fields. Since they are charged they be easily detected electronically and can be individually counted. Ion-molecule reactions occur in the upper atmosphere and in interstellar space. They also occur in high-temperature environments on the surface of the earth e.g. in flames and electric discharges although at atmospheric pressure they are more complex than the single collision observed using a crossed ion-molecule beam machine.”

Keith Birkinshaw, 22/7/2011.

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