How About Murphy’s Law?

While thinking of all the talk recently about Moore’s Law and at the same time recalling my experience at the Cyclotron at Texas A&M (Radiation Effects Facility) I thought of another law that we all know, Murphy’s Law. Just to refresh your memory, Murphy’s Law states “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” For some reference and history you can visit the Wikipedia page on this expression at: Murphy’s Law. There is some very interesting reading there on the variants of the expression and the origins.

One particularly interesting excerpt from the page is this one: “From its initial public announcement, Murphy's law quickly spread to various technical cultures connected to Aerospace engineering. Before long, variants had passed into the popular imagination, changing as they went.” Considering that I am currently working within aerospace engineering it was quite interesting to find this statement!

My mind made the connection between all of this because of the experience I had at the Cyclotron. This was my first time visiting the Cyclotron and performing radiation testing and I learned a lot. I spent my last blog giving a simple overview of the facility and letting you know just how neat and interesting it is. I would be remiss to leave the topic and not give any insight into the actual testing that was performed.

As many of you probably already know there is a lot of preparation that must be completed prior to making a trip to another lab or facility to perform any type of testing or experimentation. In this case I worked with several people within Analog Devices to prepare and functionally test the devices that we wanted to evaluate at the Cyclotron at Texas A&M. We were able to get everything confirmed as functional and ready to go and proceeded to ship all the necessary equipment to a third party company that we work with to perform testing at the Cyclotron. So far so good with no issues. With plane tickets in hand and hotel reservations in place, a colleague and I made the trip to College Station, Texas to perform the experiments we had planned.

We flew down on Friday so we could be in town and ready to begin our experiments the next day. I was quite thrilled to have a few moments in Texas to seek out and enjoy some delicious brisket. Much to my pleasure, College Station did not let me down. I actually had the pleasure to sample J. Cody’s Steak and Barbeque on Friday and also sample C&J Barbeque on Saturday. While I certainly have to give the nod to C&J (I had the beef, chicken, and pork there) the folks at J. Cody’s also did a great job on their brisket. I’d strongly recommend stopping in at either of these great places if you are ever in College Station. Enough food discussion for now, let’s get back to the testing.

We arrived at the Cyclotron with full stomachs about two hours before our slotted time which was about 2:00PM. We did this so that we could set things up and do some functional tests onsite. Just outside the data room at the Cyclotron there is an area where there are some long tables where we could set up and test everything before moving into the data room and running the cabling down to the in air station. This area is just to the left of the data room shown in the picture below (picture courtesy of Texas A&M). Things went well during this part of the afternoon.

Data Room at the Cyclotron Institute at Texas A&M (Image courtesy of Reference 1)

Data Room at the Cyclotron Institute at Texas A&M (Image courtesy of Reference 1)

We set up our equipment and ran through a few trial runs while the folks allotted the time slot before us finished up their testing. Once they were all done we moved our setup into the data room and ran the necessary cabling down to the in air station. If you recall I had discussed this area in my previous blog. I’ve included another photo of this just below (picture courtesy of Texas A&M).

In Air Station at the Cyclotron Institute at Texas A&M (Image courtesy of Reference 2)

In Air Station at the Cyclotron Institute at Texas A&M (Image courtesy of Reference 2)

Recall that this is the area where the devices under test (DUTs) are placed to irradiate them and perform the planned experiments. This was the point in the evening where things got pretty interesting. The original plan was to spend about four hours to complete the testing…however that is with the assumption that we would not have to worry about Murphy’s Law!!

Once we begin running the actual tests we ran into a software issue that took several attempts to correct. Oddly enough there was a strange issue with auto-ranging on the power supply current limits due to some interactions with the DUT. It was quite frustrating to figure out the interaction, but after nearly two hours we were able to get this and a few other issues corrected and carry on. After all this there was then trouble ‘finding the beam’ as it is termed. The radiation beam must be routed (steered) through several electromagnets to exit into the in air station. There are several precise settings that must be configured to get the radiation beam on the right path and at the right level to exit into the in air station. After another lengthy delay of about 45 minutes the radiation beam was ready to go and we were able to begin testing. With our DUT in place (shown with cables connected in the bottom left of the photo below) we began our testing.

Radiation Beam at the Cyclotron Institute at Texas A&M (Image courtesy of Texas A&M)

Radiation Beam at the Cyclotron Institute at Texas A&M (Image courtesy of Texas A&M)

About 15 to 20 minutes into the experiments we again ran into an issue with auto-ranging of the current limits on the power supplies. As it turned out, what we had thought was fixed actually turned out to still be broken. There is that nagging Murphy’s Law again! After another check of the software and about 30 to 45 minutes the issue was finally fully resolved and we could carry on. Once again we started the experiments up again and completed our experiments with the radiation level at 20 MeV. I am thankful the guys with our third party company have such great software and debugging skills to figure out the issue that we experienced and correct it. It was quite a nasty curveball that Mr. Murphy threw at us and those guys did a great job tracking it down and accounting for it in the software.

The next steps included increasing the radiation level in 20 MeV steps and continue to test device performance. However, once again we got a visit from Mr. Murphy and his law. There was once again some trouble with the radiation beam. Upon waiting another 20 to 30 minutes it was decided that we would move up to 80 MeV to perform the next set of experiments because of all the time already lost with issues for the evening. We needed to get results at the higher level so we decided to take a gamble and move up to the highest level we desired for testing. For once during the evening Mr. Murphy did not pay us a visit and we were able to get the data collected at 80 MeV. Recall that we had started the day at around 2:00PM and by the time all the desired experiments were complete it was about 11:30PM. Murphy’s Law had hit us pretty hard, but despite that fact we were able to get some good results from our experiments. One of the things I took away from the experience was that a thousand things must go right for things to work, but if one thing goes wrong it can throw everything off. It is a little different spin on Murphy’s Law but seemed to accurately sum up the experience.

I did however enjoy the overall experience. What engineer doesn’t love to troubleshoot things and overcome difficulties? It is in our blood to love challenges to and figure things out so we can find a way to get things done. That is what engineers do. It is one of the things that is at the core of the “Ahead of What’s Possible” ideal at Analog Devices. It is great to work with folks who are passionate about creating new technologies and facing challenges. It is just one of the awesome things that makes working at Analog Devices so much fun. I hope I get another opportunity to visit the Cyclotron at Texas A&M to perform more radiation experiments on other devices and overcome the challenges that may arise, regardless of whether or not we experience Murphy’s Law. It’s in my blood to face those challenges and I imagine it’s also in yours!

Once again a special thanks goes out to the great folks at the Cyclotron Institute at Texas A&M for maintaining this facility and leasing out its use for folks like myself to perform radiation testing on devices.


1 Data room photo courtesy of Texas A&M

2 In air station photo courtesy of Texas A&M

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