How can we observe such tiny tiny things as protons and -particles? There is no microscope that would be able to discern them. From the very beginning of the sub-atomic era, scientists have been working on the development of special instruments that are called particle detectors. These devices enable us either to register the mere fact that certain particle has passed through certain point in space or to observe the trace of its path (the trajectory). Actually, this is as good as watching the particle. Although the particle sizes are awfully small, when passing through some substances, they leave behind visible traces of tens of centimeters in length. By measuring the curvature of the trajectory of a particle deflected in electric or magnetic field, a physicist can determine the charge and mass of the particle and thus can identify it.
The most familiar device for registering charged particles is the Geiger counter. It cannot tell you anything about the particle except the fact that it has passed through the counter. The counter consists of a thin metal cylinder filled with gas. A wire electrode runs along the center of the tube and is kept at a high voltage ( V) relative to the cylinder. When a particle passes through the tube, it causes ionization of the gas atoms and thus an electric discharge between the cylinder and the wire. The electric pulse can be counted by a computer or made to produce a click in a loudspeaker. The number of counts per second tells us about intensity of the radiation.
The very first detector was the fluorescent screen. When a charged particle hits the screen, a human eye can discern a flash of light at the point of impact. In fact, we all use this kind of detectors every day when watching TV of looking at a computer (if it does not have an LCD screen of course). Indeed, the images on the screens of their electron-ray tubes are formed by the accelerated electrons.
Another type of particle detector, dating back to Becquerel, is the nuclear photographic emulsion. Passage of charged particles is recorded in the emulsion in the same way that ordinary black and white photographic film records a picture. The only difference is that nuclear photoemulsion is made rather thick in order to catch a significant part of the particle path. After the developing, a permanent record of the charged particle trajectory is available.
In the fields of sub-atomic physics and nuclear physics, Wilson's cloud chamber is the most fundamental device to observe the trajectories of particles. Its basic principle was discovered by C. T. R. Wilson in 1897, and it was put to the practical use in 1911.
The top and the side of the chamber are covered with round glasses of several centimeters in diameter. At the bottom of the chamber, a piston is placed. The air filled in the chamber is saturated with vapor of water. When pulling down the piston quickly, the volume of the chamber would be expanded and the temperature goes down. As a result, the air inside would be supersaturated with the vapor. If a fast moving charged particle enters the chamber when it is in such a supersaturated state, the vapor of water would condense along the line of the ions generated by the particle, which is the path of the particle. Thus we can observe the trace, and also take a photograph. To make clear the trace, a light is sometimes illuminated from the side. When placing the cloud chamber in a magnetic field, we can obtain various informations about the charged particle by measuring the curvature of the trace and other data. The bubble chamber and the spark chamber have taken place of the cloud chamber which is nowadays used only for the educational purposes. Wilson's cloud chamber has however played a very important role in the history of physics.
Bubble chamber is a particle detector of major importance during the initial years of high-energy physics. The bubble chamber has produced a wealth of physics from about 1955 well into the 1970s. It is based on the principle of bubble formation in a liquid heated above its boiling point, which is then suddenly expanded, starting boiling where passing charged particles have ionized the atoms of the liquid. The technique was honoured by the Nobel prize award to D. Glaser in 1960. Even today, bubble chamber photographs provide the aesthetically most appealing visualization of subnuclear collisions.
Spark chamber is a historic device using electric discharges over a gap between two electrodes with large potential difference, to render passing particles visible. Sparks occurred where the gas had been ionized. Most often, multiple short gaps were used, but wide-gap chambers with gaps up to 40 cm were also built. The spark chamber is still of great scientific value in that it remains relatively simple and cheap to build as well as enabling an observer to view the paths of charged particles.