Just over a year ago, the Daresbury synchrotron closed down (Is The Ring Destined For The Cracks Of Doom?) and I was contemplating the prospect of travelling to THE Continent (OK, the European mainland) in order to continue our Small-angle X-ray scattering work. 

I had only started frequently visiting beamlines at the age of 59, and was finding the experience somewhat stressful.  This is not due to the work itself, but rather administrative constraints.  Now I have invariably found the administrative staff, as well as the scientific and technical staff, courteous and helpful.  This, rather, is what I mean:

There is a Chinese Restaurant in London, well known for its good and cheap food.  In a crowded Chinese kitchen, food is prepared rapidly and without ceremony; however, in this restaurant the customers are treated similarly.  Similarly, at British beamlines, one is similarly hustled out of the cabin, and has to pack up one’s equipment, at the same time as one has to have breakfast and leave the hostel or hotel.  Since one may only have had one or two spaces of 24 hours, one is data-gathering up to the last minute, and managing these two activities together is not a happy process.

Moreover, since El Jefe is an experienced user who does not require constant attention from the beamline scientist, we have tended to be allocated weekends for our work.  At ISIS, where we do our neutron scattering, this has meant turning up on Friday after the user office has closed, and not being able to collect our canteen cards, instead having to hoard receipts.  Being a somewhat clumsy fellow, I find this uncongenial.  So I was looking forward to going abroad with some trepidation.

However, my experiences of beamlining on the Continent have been the reverse of expectation.  Within just over one year, I have visited Elettra near Trieste, DESY in Hamburg, the ESRF in Grenoble, and Elettra again.

Elettra (as seen from the air) on the left: where we stayed circled on the right.

This time I am going to write mostly about our recent second visit to Elettra.  El Jefe, with his usual wizardry, managed to get us the end of one allocation session and the beginning of the next, so that we could work a block of two projects which amounted to seven days.  (I’m not complaining, that means twice the time for half the travel.)  Since beamlining can be a 24 hours-a-day activity, this sounds almost inhuman.  However, we managed our experiments so that they included one multiple run on a single specimen taking about six of the small hours of the morning.  Now different people’s applications vary, but ours otherwise involve going into the hutch about once every hour to change specimens.  (Why is the area where the X-rays come through called the same as a cage for rabbits?)

It does nevertheless sound a bit like the regime the Mekon imposed on the undersea workforce when he briefly took over the Earth: “they have five hours to sleep and to eat whatever food they can find on the sea-bed”.  However, two things remarkably ameliorate this prospect.  One is that our seven day block was split by “beam-down Sunday”.  The Elettra management have somehow been persuaded that the commandment “six days shalt thou labour” also applies to beamline scientists, and every second Sunday the electron storage ring is turned off for maintenance.

The second is the fortitude and dedication of the beamline scientists themselves.  They have to act as “Supernanny” to all the visiting scientists, many of whom have turned into zombies by three or four in the morning.  As F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote:

In the real dark night of the soul it is always three o' clock in the morning, day after day.
  “The Crack-Up” (1936)
Moreover, they may not be required to have the skills of Ray Mears, but nevertheless they are our survival guides.  The ESRF is big enough to fund its own canteen 7 days a week 3 meals a day, but Elettra is a smaller institution.  Our own beamline scientist not only knows the best local restaurants, and also pizzerias when we wanted take away so we could carry on working, but when the weekend arrived gave us directions to the local Cooperative Supermarket, which she herself uses.  I managed three decent meals on my own purchases there.

On the last night of our stay she went with ourselves and the succeeding team to a most remarkable local restaurant, one that combines good food, atmosphere, and price.  There we were at the table, and Englishman, and Irishman, an Italian, a German, and two Croatians merrily discussing all sorts of subjects.  The matter of the EU raised its head, and it became apparent that there are two extreme views on the topic.  Not pro or anti, but as follows:

It is obvious that there is a great deal of difference between being international and being cosmopolitan. All good men are international. Nearly all bad men are cosmopolitan. If we are to be international we must be national. And it is largely because those who call themselves the friends of peace have not dwelt sufficiently on this distinction that they do not impress the bulk of any of the nations to which they belong. International peace means a peace between nations, not a peace after the destruction of nations, like the Buddhist peace after the destruction of personality. The golden age of the good European is like the heaven of the Christian: it is a place where people will love each other; not like the heaven of the Hindu, a place where they will be each other. And in the case of national character this can be seen in a curious way. It will generally be found, I think, that the more a man really appreciates and admires the soul of another people the less he will attempt to imitate it; he will be conscious that there is something in it too deep and too unmanageable to imitate. The Englishman who has a fancy for France will try to be French; the Englishman who admires France will remain obstinately English.
   from French And English by G. K. Chesterton

Now by my reckoning there were among us five internationalists and one cosmopolitan, but like Carly Simon who won’t reveal who’s so vain, I won’t even hint which was the odd one out.

Postscript: Lipizzaner horses

On our first visit, the storage ring vacuum was slow recovering after a long period of maintenance, so there was a free afternoon when our beamline scientist took to us to Lipica in Slovenia (at right of map below) to see the horses.  Here is a video of them being rounded up for the evening.