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Close-up encounter with the coolest profession

ELI ALPS hosted its most successful open-door event yet on 16 May. We had received an unprecedented number of registrations for our Day of Light activities.

Close-up encounter with the coolest profession

 

Nearly 400 visitors were given the opportunity to don the cleanroom suits laser physicists wear, watch experiments with liquid nitrogen, spy on the sky through a telescope and learn about the work of Nobel Prize-winning physicists.

We opened our doors at 6 pm. After registration, visitors looked around curiously and conducted a quick “field survey” to determine where to start their adventures. A man in his eighties chose the VR goggles demonstration. The device projected a virtual laboratory before his eyes, and he could pop virtual balloons with virtual lasers using the controllers in his hands. Visitors queued up all evening to be part of this strange experience.

A few steps from the VR demonstration stand, pre-registered applicants for the guided tour were gathering. They were the ones who were given the opportunity to take a glimpse of the inside of our institute. “We’ve been eying up this centre for a long time, but we have always missed the open days. We wanted to see what goes on inside the walls,” said Ágnes Baróti, who arrived with her daughter and son, before the tour started. The programme had been brought to her attention by an acquaintance, and she finally decided to take the opportunity. She said that some fields of physics were interesting for her too, but she works in a different discipline. Physics is not her daughter’s thing either, but she hoped that this event could bring her closer to science. The family was among the first to arrive and among the last to leave. They said they had a great time, and they were captivated by the interesting experiments.

 

 

Dr. Tímea Tímár-Grósz, research fellow of our institute, showed visitors around Focus, our interactive visitor space. In her experience, it is difficult to talk about physics in a way that is both understandable and interesting, while maintaining professionalism and credibility. “Some of the visitors are expressly interested in physics. Others come just to see an institute, which is otherwise not easy to get into. We are aware that for most of them our work is abstruse and complicated, so we show them interesting things that they can relate to. For those who are about to make career decisions, we send out this message: if you choose science, you will definitely find a job. I think it’s important to promote science because not many people want to go into this field. Either because they feel that they will fail and take the line of least resistance, or because they do not have the right foundations. We also dispel the mystical air by telling visitors what a working day looks like for us. It is worth investing the energy because we have returning visitors. We do hope that many of them will get the urge to go into science. A career in science is important because it teaches critical thinking, an approach that can be applied to so many aspects of life," our physicist said summing up her motivations.

Dozens of Year 9 students with a specialism in mathematics and English came to the event from the Szeged based Deák Ferenc Secondary School. One of them, Ádám Tarján, admitted that students would be rewarded with an ‘A’ for effort in physics for writing a one-page summary of their visit to the institute.  The young man has little interest in biology, but solving calculation problems in physics and chemistry is close to his heart. Ádám, who considers both engineering and tourism as his life goals, saw and heard a lot of interesting things at our research centre and would be delighted to return for another visit.

Our colleague from India, Dr Sourin Mukhopadhyay, has been working at the Institute for a year. With another Indian colleague, he fascinated the audience with spectacular experiments. Their equipment emitted sparks, flashes and flickers. This demonstration was part of an examination: we wanted to see whether our audience would be interested in an English-language programme. Well, they were. Visitors kept asking questions and listened attentively to the answers of our physicists. “We presented spectacular experiments with simple tools. We were clearly targeting a young audience. I don’t find this kind of presentation difficult, as the popularization of science has been my hobby for a long time. I do a lot of photography. That’s where I got the idea to use a drop of water as a lens for my laser experiment,” Dr Sourin Mukhopadhyay said.

 

 

Dr Levente Ábrók’s experiments with liquid nitrogen also attracted a huge audience. This gas must be cooled to at least –196 °C to become a liquid. A lettuce leaf, placed in liquid nitrogen for a moment, froze hard, and was crushed into small pieces by our colleague wearing gloves. Tissue paper, on the other hand, did not break. Why? Even ten-year-olds knew the answer: because it contained no water.

Our spectacular experiments attracted visitors at several stands. Many people took selfies while wearing our laboratory outfits and collected stickers on the cards they had received at the reception desk, for the correct answers to the questions asked at each station. We conveyed a lot of information about physics, the Nobel Prize and Nobel Prize-winning physicists. At the end of the course, participants received their well-deserved (chocolate and balloon) prize.

In her presentation “Attosecond pulses and ELI ALPS in the light of the 2023 Nobel Prize”, Dr Katalin Varjú, our Science Director, pointed out that even the name of the institute (ALPS, Attosecond Light Pulse Source) shows that attoseconds are very close to us. She said that it is a great honour to have such an institute in Szeged. The 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the founders of attosecond physics. Pierre Agostini, professor of physics at Ohio State University in the US, Anne L'Huillier, a researcher at Lund University in Sweden, and Ferenc Krausz, director of the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics and an external member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, received the most prestigious scientific recognition for “experimental methods for generating attosecond light pulses to study the dynamics of electrons in matter”. It must be noted that our centre also collaborates with Anne L’Huillier and Ferenc Krausz.

How long is an attosecond? According to Dr Katalin Varjú’s  illustrative example, if you divide a second into attoseconds, it is approximately the same number of seconds since the creation of the universe. This means that an attosecond laser pulse is an incredibly short flash of light. It is the timescale on which electrons move in a molecule.

Albert Einstein published his article on stimulated emission in light-matter interaction, which is the basic principle of laser operation, back in 1917. After Einstein, it took 44 years for American physicist-engineer Theodore Maiman to fire the first laser on 16 May 1960. Just four years later, the laser appeared on the silver screen. In the 1964 James Bond episode Goldfinger, a laser beam was used to cut Sean Connery, the protagonist of the film, in two. And in the 1977 Star Wars film, a spaceship was captured with a ‘laser’ tractor beam. What was then fiction has now become reality: we use lasers to cut, weld or grip small objects. In the production of mobile phones, for example, seven laser types are used in 12 different technological steps.

In response to a question, our Science Director said that she has joint publications with all three of last year’s winners, who played a fundamental role in the birth of attophysics.  She has published the largest number of papers, twenty-five altogether, with Anne L’Huillier. At the end of her lecture, she said that the 21st century would be the century of photonics and that “physicists have the coolest profession”.

We will show how true this is at our next event on the Researchers’ Night!

Author: Zoltán Ötvös

Photos: Zsolt Dobóczky

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