1 July 2011

Big magnet wedding

One couple's magnetic moment on the 45 tesla magnet.


It started as a joke.

But when Liz Prettner and Bert Green said their "I dos" atop the world's most powerful magnet, they were smiling, not laughing.

Liz Prettner and Bert GreenLynn Mayfield performs the ceremony as Liz & Bert stand over the 45 tesla magnet.

"It was very, very sweet," said Lynn Mayfield, a MagLab employee and the notary public who married the young scientists in December on the lab's two-story, 45-tesla hybrid magnet, which holds the Guinness World Record as the world's strongest magnet. "Her husband loves that 45 T, and Liz uses it to do her research, so it seemed like a good fit."

Although the young couple didn't know it, magnet coordinator John Pucci — who has the final say-so on much of what goes on at the mighty 45 T — directed a security camera on the couple during the brief ceremony. Later, he surprised them with a video of it.

"Nobody else in the world has ever gotten married on the 45 tesla, so it certainly was unusual," Pucci said. "Hopefully, it made their honeymoon even more magnetic."

Cool … and attractive

Although it was the first time anyone has tied the knot on the 45 T, it was actually the lab's second wedding.

The first nuptial was a December event, too, but 15 years earlier. Physicist Yong-Jie Wang (Jan. 16, 1957 — Dec. 12, 2009) and his bride, Xiao-Wei Wang, said their vows on a Saturday in December 1995, in the lab's sunny atrium lobby. It was a formal affair: The bride wore a long, white gown and made a dramatic entrance by descending the glass-and-steel staircase from the second floor into the airy lobby.

After the Wangs' late-afternoon ceremony, the 30 or so people in the wedding party went out for an elaborate Chinese dinner, recalled MagLab physicist Scott Hannahs, who attended the celebration.

Not so formal was the tryst on the big 45 T. Liz, a 26-year-old graduate student in physics, and Bert, a 32-year-old graduate student in scientific computing, wore blue jeans and matching Magnet Lab T-shirts that bear a pun involving cryogenics (the study of how matter behaves at very low temperatures) and magnets.

The front of the T-shirt depicts something commonly seen in a cryo lab: a dewar (pronounced DOO-er), a large container that holds liquid helium, the coldest liquid on the planet. Beside the dewar is the statement: "I'm cool … ".

On the back of the shirt is a picture of the 45 T itself, and the words: "And I'm attractive!"


In addition to being a neat-sounding word, a tesla (abbreviated as T) is a unit of measurement. It tells you how powerful a magnetic field is. A refrigerator magnet is 0.001 T. A junkyard magnet that picks up a car is about 2 T. A hospital MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine is 2 to 3 T. Now imagine how powerful a 45 T magnetic field must be!

The T-shirt-and-jeans wedding didn't start out to be so casual, though.

"I was going to get a nice dress," Liz said.

"But the stress of everything was starting to freak her out," Bert finished.

So what happened was a bit of wedding-decision déjà vu.

In the beginning, the entire idea to get hitched on the 45 T came after they visited a few wedding sites, but didn't find anything quite right. That's when Liz joked that they should just get married on the 45 T — and Bert fell in love with the idea.

This time, Liz joked that maybe they ought to just wear their jeans and cryogenics T-shirts — and again, Bert embraced the brilliance of his fiancée's suggestion. Now the stage was set.


Once they'd decided the where and what-to-wear, Bert said, "I wanted to get it all done as quickly as possible." He worried that Liz might change her mind about getting married on the big magnet and want some place more conventional — or that someone would pop up and tell them they couldn't do it.

He knew that on Dec. 13, a Monday, the 45 T would not be in use, making it safe to be on top of the 35-ton behemoth. So he pressed their plan into action.

Two witnesses (fellow grad students Laurel Winter and Tiglet Besara), a notary (Ms. Mayfield) and 10 minutes (from noon to 12:10 p.m.) was all it took. Most of the other 350 people working at the lab that day hadn't a clue about the ceremony.


It's actually two magnets in one! The 45 T is made of an 11.5 T superconducting magnet and a 33.5 T resistive magnet.

Several months after the fact, Bert still loves the whole idea of their unique 45 T wedding, and so does Liz — although her husband is clearly the more enthusiastic.

"I really get a huge kick out of it," he allowed.

Was there any downside to getting hitched on the world's most powerful magnet?

"Neither of our moms were particularly thrilled," Bert said, noting that both found out after the fact.

"And there was no cake!" said Pucci, whose impromptu wedding video did, however, make both moms smile from ear-to-ear.

This story was originally published in Issue 7 of flux magazine, a discontinued publication of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.