Sure, you’ve been to Weld basement, but have you ever welded in a basement? If you’re a Physics student at Harvard, the opportunities abound at the Harvard Physics Machine Shop in the subterranean complex under Lyman. Most students don’t know about this unique resource, but those who frequent it couldn’t be more at home. For a newcomer, the shop can be a bit daunting—the space is filled with high tech lathes, drills, bandsaws and mills, some of which are equipped with computerized attachments. There is also a coil-winding machine that can wind copper wire into thigh-wide coils. The machines aren’t just cool. “They’re really cool,” says Daniel M. Farkas, the Physics Tutor in Lowell House. The digital mills are accurate to half a thousandth of an inch, and can be programmed in three dimensions. According to Farkas, it helps “when you’re trying to measure the speed of light to 18 decimal places.” Farkas is making a small assembly for a rotating laser mount out of Invar, a metal that resists the expansion and contraction associated with laser research. He invites FM to take the digital mill for a spin. “Just lower the bit five thousandths of an inch and press the button,” he instructs. The hot lubricant launches nano-specks of Invar on smoking parabolic trajectories. Hot.
Jack Harris, a post-doc researcher, has his lab next door. His research involves supercool low-temperature Physics. Harris estimates that approximately one-third of the experimental physics at Harvard is supercool. Because of such extreme coolness (Harris’ experiment runs at .3 degrees above absolute zero), the research hinges on first-rate apparatus. About two-thirds of the equipment is made from scratch, and a substantial fraction is made in-house at the shop next door by Stanley Cotreau. Harris described Cotreau as, “one of the few people at Harvard who is the absolute master of his domain.”Cotreau has been directing the shop since 1993 and has turned it into what he considers one of the best for-student facilities around. To gain access, students must complete a 25-hour course involving such projects as constructing a steam engine and a cannon. Unfortunately, non-concentrators must pay a $350 fee. For safety’s sake, he runs a tight ship: “Its about coming out of here with ten fingers versus not.” The record is good— the last serious accident was in 1967. In those days of long hair and loose morals, a trendy young physicist got his hair caught in a spinning lathe.
Despite the dangers, the place has an air of levity about it. There’s almost always music playing, and on the weekend, according to Farkas, “It’s like a party in here.” Instead of regular ear plugs, Stan has stocked the shop with “Spark Plugs” colorful tie-dyed alternatives to the boring white ones. In short, “It’s good time,” says Scott Sanders, who is making a steam engine. Stan explains his enthusiasm. “There’s nothing more exciting than designing something, making it and having it work,” he says.