Fermilab – Part 1

August 2, 2011

What is the universe made of?  Why do our classical equations for defining physical behavior sometimes contradict each other?  What is dark matter, and if there’s so much of it out there, why can’t we find it?  The physicists pondering these big questions require big devices to observe minute particles.  For over 30 years, scientists and engineers at Fermilab, located about an hour outside of Chicago, have been on the cutting edge of particle physics. The ongoing research and construction of the particle accelerators, colliders, and detectors constitutes one of the seminal achievements of the scientific community.

I had the opportunity to tour Fermilab with a friend who is completing his PhD in particle physics.  We toured the administration building, saw how the particles are accelerated, ventured underground to witness the neutrino experiments, and learned about the construction of the detector device that records what happens when you collide two particles at extremely high energy levels.  It was no less impressive than touring NASA’s facilities at Cape Canaveral.

We began our tour in Wilson Hall, the main administration building on campus.  The monolithic concrete structure stands 16 stories tall and can bee seen from anywhere on the testing site.  The design appears futuristic and resilient.  Thick concrete walls follow a hyperbolic curve creating a symmetric shape similar to the classic Atari icon.  The interior of the building contains a large multistory atrium.  The architecture is fitting for the era in which the nation seemed on the precipice of astounding scientific discovery.  For more information about the construction of Wilson Hall see http://history.fnal.gov/WH_construction.html

From the top floor of the administration building, our guide described the main features of the campus.  Fermilab is home to the world’s second largest particle accelerator.  At 3.9 miles in circumference, Fermilab’s Tevatron was only recently surpassed by the 16.8 mile Hadron collider in Switzerland.  A second, smaller circular track is used to store antimatter – at full capacity it’s the largest collection of antimatter anywhere on Earth.  The campus also contains the original linear colliders, a separate tunnel for neutrino experiments, and all the necessary buildings to house mechanical equipment, computing systems, and offices.

Each of the buildings and testing sites are significant engineering accomplishments in their own right.  Although Fermilab is best known for particle physics, the civil engineers who participated in the construction of the facilities can also be acknowledged for their own clever ideas.  Construction of the neutrino tunnels was recognized in 2006 as one of five finalists for the Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement (OCEA) award.  One of the innovations on that project was the spray applied shotcrete used to reinforce the tunnel which passes through a natural limestone deposit.

During the earlier construction of the Tevatron, civil engineers found an ingenious way to provide the water necessary for cooling the equipment.  Instead of burying limited volume pipes near the access tunnel, they dug what appears to be a circular moat.  In fact, the body of water is more like a narrow banded lake that continuously flows in one direction, reminiscent of a Mobius strip.  This solution provides the high volume of water necessary in a much more efficient manner than buried plumbing.

Of course, it’s the Tevetron which receives the most attention – deservedly so.  In part two of this series on my trip to Fermilab, I will describe how the physicists accelerate particles from a dead stand-still to nearly the speed of light.

Where do you believe discoveries in particle physics rate among mankind’s achievements?  Amid the current economic slowdown and a shift by the Nation’s lawmakers toward austerity, should Fermilab continue to receive public funding?  Is such research an investment in the future or an unnecessary expense?  Please share your opinion.

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