In the Realm of the Prototype Machinists

The Physics Shop Fabricates One-of-a-Kind Devices Used for Ground-Breaking Research

by Julia Sommer

Berkeley's physics department is on the cutting edge of research into the origins and nature of the universe, but its faculty and students wouldn't be able to pursue their research without the expert support of the physics machine shop.

Established in 1891, the shop on the ground floor of LeConte Hall employs one senior and eight principal lab mechanicians to fabricate the complex, made-to-order equipment needed for experiments that fly into outer space and dive under the Antarctic ice cap.

Impressive-looking machines whir and whine, piles of shiny scrap metal growing next to them.The acrid smell of cutting and cooling oils permeates the air. There's not much talk. This is a room of do-ers.

Typical of Berkeley, there is an international flavor to the group of nine machinists: two are from Russia, one from England, and one from Mexico. Combined years of experience in the shop total 260.

"The skill level here is so high, these prototype machinists could get a job anywhere," says shop supervisor George Weber. "We are expected to build anything that comes through the door, and we never know what that will be."

Some recent requests:

o The smallest, coldest helium refrigerator ever made for an infrared telescope being shot into space.

o An aluminum gondola that will be packed with equipment and carried into the stratosphere by a huge helium-filled balloon to measure radiation left over from the Big Bang.

o A superconducting magnet for graduate students to investigate the behavior of fluids--probably the biggest such magnet on campus.

o An apparatus for the Soviet space station Mir to detect cosmic rays.

o A photomultiplier tube that will detect light coming through the Antarctic ice cap.

The shop's one-of-a-kind projects can take anywhere from half an hour to a year to design and construct. They can mean the success or failure of a multimillion dollar international experiment.

Associate Professor of Physics Joel Fajans has four graduate students working with the shop machinists designing and fabricating equipment for their experiments.

"This is part of their education," he says. "You can't be a good experimental physicist without learning how to work with machinists, and these are the best I've ever known. The only trouble is, there are not enough of them."

Due to campus budget cuts and attrition, physics machine shop staff has dropped from 14 to nine since the '70s. Physics also exchanges ideas and equipment with the other two major machine shops on campus--chemistry and mechanical engineering.

Most of the machinists learned their trade through formal apprenticeships, but on-the-job training is dying out, says Weber. This is partly because manufacturing in this country has taken such a dive, partly because industry is turning more toward operators who program machines to do what machinists used to do. But they don't have the all-around skills of a traditional machinist.

"These guys will be very hard to replace," says Weber of his seasoned crew. "We grew up with wrenches and screwdrivers. Now kids grow up with computers."

But the physics machine shop is keeping up with the times. It has a computer-controlled milling machine, used mainly to make parts that need particularly fine tolerances and/or complicated geometries. Two more will be bought soon.

The shop also runs a satellite facility to train graduate students, faculty and staff to make their own equipment. Russian émigré Joe Kant has supervised this "junior" shop for 10 years, giving students 30-60 hours of one-on-one training before setting them loose. About 300 people use the shop.

Most of the work done in the physics machine shop is for graduate students working on their theses under the supervision of professors. "We have a great deal of respect for each other," says Weber of his crew and the young students.

Says Physics Professor Paul Richards of the machinists: "They are fantastically able people, vital to physics research, real participants in the educational and research activities of the department."


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail