Listen now 15 mins
The scientific tribe that Peter Curran meets this week has a spectacular gleaming home. The tribal dwelling place is a gigantic silver doughnut in the Oxfordshire countryside. Within this flying saucer-like construction is the UK's largest particle accelerator and it functions as the country's most powerful x-ray machine. It's called the Diamond Light Source synchotron and it enables scientists to peer deep inside matter at the scale of atoms. Four years old, it's the newest of Britain's megascience facilities.
Hordes of researchers visit every year to image and study everything from new drug compounds to novel materials for computers, tiny viruses to meteorites, and Dead Sea Scroll parchment to aircraft wing alloys.
The work of the visitors is only possible thanks to the resident scientists who run Diamond's experimental stations called beam lines. These are labs are positioned at different points around the giant accelerator's ring. At these points, beams of radiation - from x rays to ultraviolet - fire out from the doughnut and are channelled for use in research projects.
Peter Curran puts the beam line scientists under his own anthropological microscope. The beam line scientists are largely physicists and chemists by background and each of the 15 beamlines has its own team of them, working in units called 'hutches'. The researchers have designed and built each station and are responsible for its smooth operation and pristine maintenance. They host the researchers who come to use the facilities. Some of these beamlines are operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Peter aims to discover what working life is like in the UK's most glittering new science facility and what might characterise the average beam liner. What are the thrills of harnessing radiation from Britain's biggest particle accelerator, and what are the more onerous aspects? How do the beam line scientists feel about having the responsibility of being keepers of Diamond's light when that role means they forgo full pursuit their own research? What's the formula for maintaining a harmonious hutch?
Producer; Andrew Luck-Baker.