MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We move on up to Maryland, College Park, the University of Maryland, College Park, which over the years, you could say, has attracted a pretty impressive team of researchers. Research funding has been going up of late, but some universities scientists are worried this growth could be derailed by something you've probably heard talk about, here and there, The Purple Line. Here to give us the lowdown is WAMU reporter David Schultz in our weekly transportation segment, "From A to B."
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Hi, David, thanks for coming by.
MR. DAVID SCHULTZ
Hi, my pleasure.
Okay. So before we get into the nitty-gritty of the whole issue, why don't you remind us exactly what is The Purple Line?
Sure. Well, The Purple Line, as it's sort of popularly known, is a light rail line that would connect Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland. It's the brain child of the Maryland Transit Administration, also known as the MTA. Now, The Purple Line would, more or less, go parallel to the Beltway, running between the Bethesda Metro Station and the New Carrollton Metro Station. And in-between, it would pass right through College Park.
Okay. So you have better access between Bethesda and New Carrollton, you'd have light rail in College Park. This sounds great, but there's a catch, right? What's the catch?
Yeah, there is a catch and I think I'll let this guy explain it.
MR. STEVE ROLSTON
Hi, I'm Steve Rolston. I'm a professor at the University of Maryland and the co-director of the joint Quantum Institute.
And so where are we right now?
We're in the computer space science building on the campus of the University of Maryland College Park.
Steve took to me to the lab where he does all his work. It's down in the basement.
One of the reasons that our labs are almost always located in the basement, is we're very sensitive to vibration. So, as you'll see when we go down there, there's laser beams all over the place. They're bouncing off mirrors, various optical components. And if things are vibrating them, it causes us a lot of difficulty.
Wait, wait, wait, hold on a second. Did he say laser beams?
Yes, yes, he did.
Okay, okay, I thought -- I thought so.
Steve and his team are studying Quantum Mechanics by shooting lasers at atoms. So here's how it works. They take one individual atom, put it inside a vacuum and then they make it as cold as they possibly can.
Dude, I used to live in Alaska so I know a thing or two about cold.
Yeah, well, this is just a little bit colder than Alaska. They cool the atom down to minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit. That's a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero. The absolute coldest anything can physically be.
Okay, that is a bit colder than Alaska, I'll give you that.
Yeah, basically, at that point, everything stops moving. And that's exactly what they're trying to do. They want to see how this atom behaves when it's totally still.
Okay. But how do they get the atom so cold?
Well, naturally, Rebecca, they shoot it with lasers.
Of course. Wait a minute, what?
Yeah, you know, to be honest, I kind of didn't understand that, either. But Steve tried to explain it to me.
We always kind of make the analogy, it's like bouncing thousands of ping pong balls off a bowling ball. And if you keep doing that, eventually you can slow down the bowling ball. And that's what we're doing here.
So the lasers are the ping pong balls?
That's right. Yeah, and the bowling ball would be the atom, right?
Kind of get it. I mean, I'm kind of terrible at both ping pong and bowling, but I think I understand what he's saying. But my question is, how would you apply the stuff in, say, a real world setting?
That's a good question. Basically, Steve says if you can learn more about Quantum Mechanics, you can discover new, better ways to encrypt data. And as you might imagine, the NSA is pretty interested in that and they just gave Steve and his team a $10 million grant.
That's a lot of money. But going back to the Purple Line, how is all of this connected?
Well, the instruments Steve uses to do this kind of work are really, really sensitive and they could get thrown off by even the slightest disturbance from, let's say, oh, I don't know, a train passing nearby.
Yeah, exactly. If The Purple Line's route runs too close to Steve's lab, the vibrations from the passing trains will really mess him up.
And it depends on how close it is to where the lab is. And it's actually very challenging to figure out exactly because it has to do with the soil type, the building construction. But there is no doubt if, for vibration certainly, if we were, you know, right next to The Purple Line, it would be an issue.
And it's not just the vibration Steve's worried about. The electrical current that will power the trains -- well, the trains themselves both emit a magnetic field. Now, this field is tiny, but it's significant enough that it could cause problems for the scientists on campus.
So what are they going to do?
Well, looks like for now, Steve and his colleagues are in the clear. Most of the University's scientific buildings are in the upper part of campus and the proposed route for The Purple Line is along the lower end of campus. So they should be able to avoid any disturbances. But Steve's not just worried about himself here. Sure, he says, The Purple Line may not affect today's scientists, but what about the scientists of tomorrow?
You have to look way out into the future. So if I, say, go back 30 years, none of this research even existed then. And there's other instruments that are equally sensitive to magnetic fields. They didn't exist then. So we have to kind of be thinking, we don't really know what's going to exist in the future.
Steve says, if a scientific instrument that hasn’t been invented yet won't work in College Park because of The Purple Line, that's not okay.
So has he or any of his colleagues approached the planners of The Purple Line about all of this?
Oh, yeah, definitely. The University and the MTA have been in deep discussions about this for a while now.
Okay. And what's the MTA going to do?
Well, it's sort of interesting. They've proposed a solution, but the solution kind of creates a whole other set of problems. So the MTA promised the University it will install devices that counteract The Purple Lines magnetic field wherever needed for as long as it's needed. But, of course, no one really knows when or where that will be or how much those devices will cost. This is kind of a huge question mark in The Purple Line budget. And when you're vying for highly competitive federal funding as the MTA is with this project, huge budgetary question marks are not what you want to see.
Well, David Schultz, thanks for coming in and kind of blowing my mind.
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