Oct. 23, 1997
Vol. 17, No. 3

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    Fun with physics? Ask Fred!

    By Jennifer Vanasco
    News Office

    Fred Niell is in many ways a typical College student -- an affable, articulate guy who wears ripped jeans and a T-shirt. A third-year student concentrating in physics, he commutes to Champaign every weekend to see his fiancee. Yet there's something that sets him apart from many of his peers: Last summer he designed a particle acceleration system for Fermilab, and on Monday, Oct. 27, he will be featured in an episode of "Stephen Hawking's Universe" on PBS (see MediaWatch on this page). And, oh yes, in high school he built three particle accelerators in his garage in Memphis, Tenn.

    Niell also has a web page called "Ask Fred" (http://student-www.uchicago.edu/users/fmniell/science/html) He answers about five questions a week from people who send him e-mail on everything from the weather to science fair projects. Why were you interviewed for "Stephen Hawking's Universe"? It's a long story. In high school, I had built a particle accelerator for my science fair project for three consecutive years. They pretty much blew away the competition, and I went on to the International Science and Engineering Fair, where I won first place twice and second place once. My second year, I actually won not only first place but the grand prize, which was a trip to Stockholm as a guest of the Swedish Royal Academy to go to the Nobel Prize ceremony. I talked to everyone who spoke English while I was there, and I guess someone at the BBC heard of me.

    In the summer of 1996, I got a call from a lady who said they were doing this series that would be broadcast on both BBC and PBS and they were looking for an expert on particle accelerators. So I said, yeah, I know all about them, and they sent someone out to speak to me to make sure, and then an eight-person film crew came and filmed for three days.

    Was it fun? It was excellent. I got to do a lot of explaining about the scene in physics between 1928 and 1934, which was a very exciting time. It's when particle physics took its first leap. Actually, it was a very exciting time for physics in general. The nucleus was discovered, along with neutrons and protons. Science that every third grader knows now was discovered in that part of the century. And I got to show off my machines.

    Have you seen your episode yet? I haven't, but one of my professors has. I was in Physics 186 last year, and over the summer the professor who taught that class was in Cambridge doing research. He was sipping port one evening and happened to turn to Channel 2, which is the BBC. And there I was, talking about particle accelerators. He told me later that he spit out his port, he was so shocked.

    What is a particle accelerator, anyway? Well, you know that opposite charges attract. At a high voltage there's a lot of positive charge, so a negatively charged electron is attracted to the charge, and it moves very quickly to get to it. By moving toward the charge, the electron gets smashed into pieces and you can watch what happens next.

    I built all three of mine -- one linear particle accelerator and two cyclotrons -- for under $100, using plans from the 1930s. Linear accelerators are ones that are just a straight tube. Cyclotrons go in spirals, and are a much more efficient method of accelerating particles. Mine were about four and a half inches in diameter.

    What gave you the idea to build one? My grandfather was a mechanical and electrical engineer and he did a lot of ham radio stuff. When he died, there was a lot of electrical surplus lying around and I started putting things together and finding out everything I could about electronics. At the fringes of electronics is high-voltage electronics -- sparks and stuff, which is pretty neat for a 12 year old. And from sparks, it's really a short leap to physics and particle accelerators.

    Have you been doing research while you're at the University? I work for Stephan Meyer [Associate Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics], helping him with his microwave experiments. I also do a lot over the summers. This past summer was the third I've spent at Fermilab, and I designed a new system of accelerating. It's a neat design, I really like it. It's my baby.

    Does it work? Yeah. They're going to use it.

    Do you think you're learning anything here? I get asked that a lot. People think that if you've built a particle accelerator in your garage, you don't need someone to teach you physics. But when I was doing that, I only learned what I needed to know to build my accelerator. I'm learning lots of stuff now that I had no idea even existed in high school.