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If you come . . . they will build it

Laszlo Varga, donning a grease-spotted work coat, stood smiling with his hands on his hips. A physics professor was describing a teaching apparatus that he needed for a lab experiment. Varga, the foreman of the physics department machine shop, nodded.

"OK. Are we done then?" he asked.


"You think that you can do this for me?" the professor asked.

"Sure. Give me a couple of days," Varga responded, ending a type of conversation that he has had with almost every physics professor as well as with many staff members from other departments around the University.

The physics machine shop, tucked away in the basement of Jadwin Hall since 1970, is one of the best in the country. It is home to four professional machinists who find solutions for everything from what type of base to use with a new sculpture outside of Peyton Hall to what part is needed for a NASA-sponsored satellite.

"I think of them as gods," said research physicist Norman Jarosik, who is working on a NASA satellite probe with the help of the machine shop. "All you have to do is go down with a rough idea of what you want them to do. You discuss with them and show them your idea. And then they tell you how to make the design better and put it together in no time."

Jarosik and other University physicists have been working on the satellite probe, which is also known as the Microwave Anisotrophy Probe project, for four years with NASA engineers and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The machine shop has been on board every step of the way.

"They figure out better ways to make things, and they are enormously creative," said physics professor Lyman Page, who is also working on the MAP project and has collaborated with the machine shop since he wrote his thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "They are really good and right down stairs. There is not much turnaround time, and they saved us a huge amount of money."


The satellite, which will launch in early 2001 and will have a mission time of two years, will measure the universe's microwave background — the "afterglow" of the Big Bang or the "oldest light in the universe"— and form a map of these microwaves, according to Page. These measurements will provide new insights into how the universe evolved after the Big Bang.

"We will know the universe more intimately than we ever have been able to before," said Page, who worked on the mission proposal — which NASA chose from a pool of 60 other submissions. "This mission will allow us to understand the universe like it has never been understood before. We will be able to see how the universe evolved and how its structure came to be. It is tremendously exciting."

"This is going to provide us with a testing ground for different theories. We have to come to terms with different forms of matter and energy, which are going to affect cosmological and fundamental theories of physics," he said.

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Jarosik added that the satellite will study the history of the universe as far back as just after the Big Bang.

The MAP project has more than 100 people working on it and costs more than $90 million. Goddard is responsible for the mechanics of constructing the actual space craft, and the scientists at the University are in charge of the design and scientific instruments. "The machine shop played a major role in this project," said Chuck Bennett, the principle investigator for the MAP project at Goddard. "They built the essential parts . . . Not too many people in the world can do what they do."

Before work on the MAP project began, Page approached Varga to discuss the best way to proceed. "I fixed [the project] on a piece of paper and walked down stairs and said to Laszlo, 'Can you do this?' And then we talked about it," Page said, adding that he visits Goddard once per week. "I knew that the shop had the capabilities to do it. It is a world-class shop and is extremely cost-effective. We made a schedule for machine-shop time so that we would not impact other projects. They needed to be able to do other projects for the physics department and still work on this full time."

One of the most difficult challenges of the MAP project was to build "feed horns," or cones that act as microwave-radiation receivers. The cones — which must have 533 precise rings engraved into the interior surface — direct the waves into the base of the satellite. These lightweight aluminum cones had to be cut by hand — a painstaking challenge.

"It's good to see that [the satellite] actually works," said machine shop technical staff member Glenn Atkinson, who built the feed horns. "It is a project that has never been done before. I figured out how to make these special tools and had to make the tools to go along with them."

Though its parts have been completed, the satellite still requires the assistance of the machine shop. "Last week, they were having problems with part of an instrument. So I custom made the tools to fix them," said Atkinson, who has worked in the machine shop for nine years. "It is definitely a huge relief that most of [the satellite] is completed now. We were definitely under pressure to get everything done."

Last year, NASA honored the machine shop with its International Support Award for its contributions to the MAP project. "The award was a fairly big deal," Atkinson said. "It meant a lot that the University got that recognition."

A working replica of the satellite is being tested on the roof of Jadwin Hall to verify the design. During good weather, it takes microwave measurements from a transmitter source located on the top of Fine Hall.

The MAP satellite was not the first major project on which the machine shop has worked. "We help out with a lot of research projects," Atkinson said, who is working on a design for the astrophysics department involving a digital sky survey. "We are busy at varying times. We can be pressed for deadlines and have work waiting. But we never like to turn work away. If people are in a rush, we even try to squeeze them in."

Varga, who has worked in the machine shop for 32 years, said, "We work for everyone. If a professor comes in with a sketch and verbal instructions, we try to do it."

The machine shop has contributed to a number of cosmological high-altitude missions, which have involved launching helium balloons from locations such as the south pole, Texas, South America, Australia and Canada. These balloons try to detect changes just after the Big Bang and measure "the temperature at the edge of the Universe, where it can measure through the atmosphere," said design engineer and retired machine shop staff member Ted Griffith, who designed several of these balloons' gondolas.

Assistant physics professor Suzanne Staggs said, "I considered using another shop for a nanosecond. I really appreciate everything that the machine shop can do here." Her balloon mission — which was sponsored by the National Science Foundation — launched in December of 1995 from Fort Sumner, N.M. "They built everything," she added.

Staggs is working on an experiment involving a microwave telescope that measures microwave cosmic polarization and uses a structure the machine shop constructed. The telescope is located on the roof of Jadwin Hall.

"The experiment involves a gigantic ground screen, for which Ted Griffith designed a fancy enclosure," she said. "The experiment needs to be 11 feet when it is deployed, and Ted's design folds down to five-and-a-half feet tall."

The machine shop is not only busy with projects involving breakthrough science experiments, but also with handiwork around the University. "When the students used to steal the bell clapper from Nassau Hall Bell, we would be the ones replacing them. Now the bell rings electronically," Varga said. "We've aligned motors at the [Cogeneration] Plant, made the fixtures for broken lamps and new hinges for broken old doors . . . Whatever people need, we will fix or reproduce."

Professors also turn to the machine shop for help with experiments involving undergraduate students. "I most recently used the machine shop when I was teaching the 'Learn by Teaching' project with physics for poets, in which the students teach local middle schoolers with lessons that they designed," said associate physics professor Albert Young, who is working on an experiment involving a cart with lasers constructed by the machine shop. "The machine shop helped the students design the needed equipment," he said.

Jarosik added, "They help everyone. I once saw Laszlo welding giant soup stirrers for the University kitchen. I asked Laszlo what he was doing, and he shrugged. It gave us a good laugh."

The machinists, with the help of a full-time instructor, also attempt to pass on their skills to students in the student shop, a similar machine shop connected to the professional one."We offer classes at the beginning of each semester and at the beginning of the summer to physics undergraduates," said Griffith, who is the former head of the student shop. "Over 20 hours, we teach them to use the machines and to apply themselves. We work with them."

The machine shop, which has existed long before Varga came to Princeton from Hungary 32 years ago, continues to allow the physics department to stay on the cutting edge of discovery.

And as University scientists claim world recognition and Nobel Prizes, the four men who spend their days in Jadwin Hall — tweaking everything from window screens to space instruments — keep building on their success.