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Dec 15 / Dave Schumaker

Physicists Meet An Archaeopteryx


It almost sounds like the beginning of a joke: “So a physicist and an Archaeopteryx walk into a bar…”

Physicists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator will use the facility’s Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource to fire a powerful beam of x-rays at the 150 million year old fossilized animal in order to better determine the chemical makeup of the specimen.

The idea for X-raying the fossil first came from Robert Morton, an oil company chemist in Bartlesville, Okla., and its transport to Stanford was arranged by Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in South Dakota, which offers a wide variety of fossils for sale.

On Friday, SLAC’s synchrotron lightsource aimed its intensely bright X-ray beam at the fossil’s surface to reveal the structure of the Archaeopteryx’s interior bones and tiny teeth, and even hint at its soft tissues. Each individual chemical inside the fossil emitted a specific frequency of fluorescent light that identified it, Manning said.

Uwe Bergmann, a physicist at SLAC, runs the synchrotron lightsource, where X-ray beams are generated by magnets tapping a stream of electrons racing at 3 million electron volts inside a storage ring and accelerated to nearly the speed of light.

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