If you want to measure cosmic rays, you can’t stop by the hardware store and pick up a detector on your way home. You have to make the device yourself.
Scientists have been devising their own machines for centuries—from Dutchmen in the 1600s inventing the microscope, all the way to the modern particle accelerators that span several miles. A new class at the University of Chicago is inviting students to follow in these footsteps, learning how to design, build and calibrate their own devices. Called “Creative Machines and Innovative Instruments,” the class has students writing code, 3D printing their designs and learning the challenges of making something entirely new from scratch.
“We had them designing and building in the very first week,” said Prof. Emeritus Stephan Meyer, who is co-teaching the class. “It’s been great fun. There’s just a tremendous amount of energy in the class.”
The University of Chicago has a long tradition of building one-of-a-kind machines for science: Instruments built here have flown around the Earth’s poles, surveyed the oldest light in the universe, roved the surface of Mars, and explored Saturn’s rings. But there has never been a formal class devoted to the subject.
This fall quarter, however, marked the start of a new curriculum. The inaugural class, which includes 16 students, is the first in a series that Meyer and a group of fellow physicists and astronomers have planned for years.
“What we hope is that students will take away an overview of the entire design process—what it takes to move from concept to reality,” said Prof. Scott Wakely, who is co-teaching the class this quarter.
Meyer and Wakely know what they’re talking about; they are experimental physicists, specializing in building one-of-a-kind instruments for science. Both have designed instruments for decades, including machines to map the cosmic background radiation of the universe, to track the paths of cosmic rays through the atmosphere, and even to look for “holographic noise” in the universe.
“Making an instrument is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating at times, and this gives students a way to experience both firsthand,” Wakely said.
Meyer agreed: “I’ve been really impressed with their persistence and willingness to try again.”