[The following is based on an excerpt from Back Roads, Dark Skies, my book-in-progress. My book has failed to find a publisher, so I’m going to run a few bits of it here from time to time. This piece is derived from portions of Chapter 2: Of Bosons and Bison. Yesterday’s post was an earlier excerpt from the same chapter. I apologize for the length of the excerpt, but it was hard to trim down without losing something of the flavor of the chapter.]
Unlike most sites where the business of cosmology is done, Fermilab isn’t in a remote spot. The facility is in Batavia, Illinois, part of the sprawling metroplex of Chicago, and it’s just a short drive from two major tollways. The Standard Model describes a plethora of particles, but it has nothing on the number of fast-food joints and auto shops within ten minutes’ drive of the Fermilab gates. My friend hosting me during my stay in Illinois wasn’t even aware of the lab’s location, despite having friends living close by—the area around it is that densely packed.Nevertheless, portions of the extensive Fermilab grounds are as close to wilderness as you can achieve in suburbia. Though surrounded by all the trappings of modern urban sprawl, Fermilab is home to a small herd of bison, along with coyotes, herons, and other wildlife — a true nature preserve, worth visiting for that reason alone. Additionally, many of the buildings are architecturally interesting: spirals, scalloped roofs, and other geometrical features appear throughout the facility. (I described the SiDet building with its icosohedral roof in Chapter 1, which you’ll probably have to wait for the actual book to read.) Even the power lines running into the complex were designed to look like the Greek letter pi (π). Mixed in with the architectural monuments to the heady heyday of 1970s particle physics are the hideous utilitarian sheds and trailers housing many of the research scientists, and the unimpressive boxy metal structures containing the DZero and CDF detectors. Overall, Fermilab is a glorious heterogeny of past, future, beautiful, ugly, natural, and artificial — a metaphor for modern science.
Wilson Hall, the 15-story Fermilab headquarters, reportedly was inspired by the Gothic cathedral in Beauvais, France, though to this highly professional physicist’s eyes, it looks more like the Atari logo. The building has an inner courtyard extending nearly the height of the building, with glass from base to ceiling on either end creating a space filled with light. The courtyard level, which visitors enter via doors at the top of a broad set of stairs, contains a garden of ficus plants. Balconies overhung with ivy look over the open cafeteria space at the far end. Overall, Wilson Hall’s atrium is one of the most attractive spaces in science, like an art museum dedicated to particle physics.
I attended a cosmology conference at Fermilab during my graduate student days several years ago, but due to time constraints and active experiments going on during the visit, I hadn’t been able to see much. This trip would be very different, for unfortunate reasons. In September 2011, the Tevatron — Fermilab’s largest collider — shut down after budget cuts made it too expensive to continue operations. What this meant is that I could actually tour parts of the facility that would be inaccessible while the collider was running, but it also meant many conversations were weighted with the past tense, and the future tension of uncertainty. What will happen at Fermilab in the short term, ten years later, twenty years later? That existential doubt affected nearly every question I asked, and every answer I received.
(As a side note, my borrowed camera failed me right before DZero, so I don’t have any photos from this part of the tour.) Continue reading ‘Naming the animals in the particle zoo’