Big Magnet Passes Cape

Jim Stone watches big magnet pass  by Trail of Tears 07-17-2013Jim Stone, Central High School science whiz, emailed me all excited about a big magnet that was going to be passing through Cape on the Mississippi River. He sent me a link with a near-live GPS tracking do-hickey so I’d be sure to know when it was coming.

That’s Jim on the right. He’s a Professor of Physics at Boston University and an all-around big-whoop in the world of chasing tiny particles that may or may not exist and if he finds them I don’t know if he’s going to put them in a coffee can or what.

That’s not the way he explains it, but that’s the short version. The woman in red was just a tourist who stopped by the Trail of Tears overlook. Click on any photo to make it larger.

It’s coming! It’s coming!

Big magnet passes Trail of Tears 07-17-2013The Paul Revere of the magnet world sent me a frantic text Wednesday morning: “Magnet already past Cairo. Will pass Cape in about 2 hours. I will miss it since I am just now boarding my flight. I’ll check when I land but will most likely catch it at St Louis or slightly south. It seems to be moving rather fast.

He sent the alert at 6:30; I got it at 8:30, so I figured two hours from Cairo would mean that I would miss it by the time I put my pants on. I pulled up the tracking chart and saw it was just making the curve down by New Madrid. Jim may be a great physicist, but he didn’t learn one basic rule: boats go faster downstream than they go upstream. It was going to be awhile before it got to Cape.

I had some interviews in Perry County, so I passed the ball to Fred Lynch and James Baughn at The Missourian. James managed to snag it as it was passing Cape.

A pretty day on the Mississippi

Big magnet passes Trail of Tears 07-17-2013Jim’s plane landed and he caught the magnet at Cape Rock. I wrapped up my interview and blasted off to the overlook at Trail of Tears. The route I took was hilly and curvy and one where I know (I hope) every curve, so I made good time. The brakes sure smelled hot when I pulled in, though.

Jim wasn’t there, but I heard boat radio traffic that sounded like two barges were setting up to make a pass. Sure enough, way down to the south, I could see a towboat pushing a single barge with a white thing on top of it. It might have been unique, but it wasn’t too exciting to look at.

Passing the lookout

Big magnet passes Trail of Tears 07-17-2013I called Jim to tell him it had arrived, but would probably take a good 20 minutes or more to make it out of sight. His timing was perfect: he made it when it was almost right in front of the lookout.

Wire break = kaput

Big magnet passes Trail of Tears 07-17-2013A very nice woman was intrigued by the idea of something going by that was too big and delicate to be lifted by helicopter and couldn’t be hauled by truck from Brookhaven National Laboratory at Long Island, New York, to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the Chicago suburbs, its new home.

Jim went into great detail about how its core was created with a single coil of wire and if that wire was broken or damaged, then the whole thing was kaput. (I’ve been photographing the last generation of German speakers in the pioneer communities of Perry county, so I’m hearing stuff like “kaput” all the time.)

He went on to explain the calibration process and how they fine-tune it by placing a piece of paper under a single strand of wire until the magnet output is exactly even. Once that’s done, they throw a pet throgmorton (or something that sounded like that) into the middle of the magnet and check for deviation.

Check break room for refrigerator magnets

Big magnet passes Trail of Tears 07-17-2013

“If they find a deviation, I assume the first thing they check would be if anybody added a refrigerator magnet in the break room,” I volunteered. Scientists take these things seriously, so I could tell he was not amused.

When he thought I wasn’t looking, though, I saw him writing “Check break room for refrigerator magnets” in a small pocket notebook.

If you really want to know what the magnet is used for, check out the Fermilab website. My explanation is easier to understand.

Had time for burgers at Mississippi Mud

Big magnet passes Tower Rock 07-17-2013As soon as the target was out of sight, we headed up to Altenburg to the Mississippi Mud Tavern in Altenburg, where I had the second-best hamburger of the whole Florida-Missouri expedition.

I calculated that it was going to take about 1-1/2 hours for it to get 15 or so miles up to Tower Rock. My guess was pretty close. We had scarcely pulled in before we could hear the throb of engines coming up the river. The Miss Kate and her precious cargo managed to make it past The Demon That Devours Travelers, so we went upriver to catch it passing under what was (and may still be) the world’s longest suspension pipeline.

Passing the pipeline

Big magnet passes suspension pipeline 07-17-2013We had a pleasant conversation with some guys enjoying the breeze and some brews. While we were standing there, Jim noticed a sign that had been used for target practice.

“What if somebody took a shot at it while it was in transit? That thing passed through Kentucky and Tennessee where somebody might have been tempted to take a potshot at something that looks like a flying saucer,” he obsessed.




21 Replies to “Big Magnet Passes Cape”

  1. Don would have loved this. He went out at dawn in Madison on a freezing February day to see a helicopter placing a huge tower in Madison that was to hold a new distribution line. The transporting of the magnet would have been a big draw for him. For me, the second best hamburger of the trip would have been the headline event.

  2. I thought I sensed a disturbance in the force to the east of me…

    I like Jane’s “The transporting of the magnet would have bee an big draw for him”.

    I felt the attraction from here in KC. It obviously sucked in Ken.

  3. I grew up with Brookhaven National Lab literally in my back yard, and my mom lives in New Wells, which is near Altenburg. And right now I’m in Jupiter, which is Ken’s back yard. Small world.

  4. Yes, what a great adventure! You and only one other person in the world would chase down a giant magnet coming up the Mississippi river and write a great story about it! Wm. Shakespeare is the only other guy I know. Of course, millions of us guys would come to the river like rats for cheese to see this BIG Bertha of magnets drive by on a barge…way cool!
    Thanks for sharing this great adventure and thanks to Jim Stone for letting the world know though you about this magnetic transportation event of the century…and the little comment about listening to barge traffic on your radio? My radio will not pick up barge traffic. What kind of radio do you have that does this wonderment?

  5. Ken,
    In my opinion the world’s best hamburger can be found in Leesburg, Florida at Vic Embers Steakhouse on Hwy. 441. Surely you pass by there on some of your trips. Only problem is they don’t open until 4:30 pm. Coat and tie not required!

    Would have loved to see the magnet. Just would love to see a riverboat on the Mississippi again. Spent many an hour on the river bank waiting for the John I. Hay to arrive bringing my dad home to us.

    Thanks for your wonderful pictures.

  6. No, the best hamburger in the world WAS in a roadside diner/gas station/convenience store called Streak Hill in north rural Georgia, between Helen and Hiawassee. There were many of us campers from Florida who made regular trips there for several years until they closed up. What a loss! It was one of our must visits when we camped near there. The other place is Deer Lodge farther south down that same highway toward Helen, GA.

  7. No, no, the best hamburger in the world is closer than that. In Farmington, MO, there is an old-school drive-in, complete with car-hop service, called “Hunt’s.” Order a double, or triple Western Cheeseburger with your choice of toppings, and you will not be disappointed. Have a homemade ice cream, shake or malt for dessert, if you still have room.

  8. Ken, where exactly do you live? One day you are in Florida, and the next day you are in Cape.
    Seems like you live in your car and just travel. LOL

    1. I’m a rolling stone gathering no money. I’m in Cape right now, but I’m headed out to Ohio for a couple of exhibits/presentations at the end of July. I was supposed to go back to FL, but I think I’m going to swing back to Cape for a few more days to keep working on some projects there.

      I have to keep on the move to keep from any state trying to nail me for state income taxes (we don’t have them in FL).

  9. Loved this!!! How exciting. What a great chase. Sorry I missed the pass. I teach physics here at SEMO and my field is magnetic materials. My students and I alloy metals together to try and come up with new, cheaper, and stronger refrigerator magnets. We also have made superconducting materials, similar to the materials the magnets are made of.

    1. Sorry you missed meeting with Jim. It would have been nice to have someone there who could tell me if anything he said was true. I think he makes up most of it. Every word of MY account, however, is gospel.

    1. I’ve been making fun of Jim since we ran around in high school. Somebody has to do it now that he’s a big shot in the world of physics and people have to pretend to be impressed by him.

      I keep pointing out that if he was REALLY smart, he’d have gotten an E (that would be an A today)in Ernie Chiles’ Earth Science class instead of a puny E-.

  10. Ken, saw your link earlier this morning and thought “who cares about a super big magnet.” I live up the road a piece from Fermilab and would would rather have root canal than see what really goes on there. But I’m just a girl that can’t say no. Like giant magnetic force, the link kept pulling at me. Gotta say your photo essays still have have a certain magnetic attraction. Can’t imagine what you could do with the world’s largest ball of string. :;>)

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