Robert Wilson’s Weird Dream Lab: Fermilab, part 1

Perhaps I’m biased, but Fermilab is one of my favorite places.  Not only is it home to the biggest kind of Big Science — the Tevatron — but it also manages to be the quirkiest of the National Labs. I went there for the first time as a science writing intern in the summer of 2005 and, as this trip should make clear, never really looked back.

A panorama showcasing Wilsons blue-and-orange color scheme and his self-designed π-shaped power poles stretching off into the distance.

A panorama showcasing Wilson's blue-and-orange color scheme and his self-designed π-shaped power poles stretching off into the distance.

Fermilab was built on a green field site, meaning that there was almost nothing there before the lab. Since building where there is no existing infrastructure is so much more expensive than upgrading (or simply repurposing) existing lab space and equipment, it is rarely done anymore. The Superconducting Super Collider’s green field construction contributed significantly to its burgeoning cost estimates and thus played a role in its cancellation. By contrast, Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider makes use of a myriad of pre-existing accelerator components and the Large Hadron Collider is housed in the tunnel formerly used by CERN’s Large Electron-Positron Collider.

Fermilab was almost singlehandedly designed by the legendary physicist Robert Wilson, who managed to complete his pet project ahead of schedule and under budget by exerting an extraordinary degree of personal control over its construction details. His efficiency, along with the 1960s’ tremendous respect for physics, gave him the freedom to do things his way. In most instances, this freedom resulted in some seriously idiosyncratic architecture.

Wilsons idea of a sensibly-designed roof.

Wilson's idea of a sensibly-designed roof.

Wilson was particularly fond of enormous circles on doors.

Wilson was particularly fond of enormous circles on doors.

More Fermilab architecture.

More Fermilab architecture.

The π-poles in all their glory.

The π-poles in all their glory.

Additional construction at Fermilab has stayed very close to Wilson’s vision and steps have been taken to preserve the laboratory’s past. The pi poles are scrupulously, if laboriously, protected from woodpecker damage, and the original bubble chamber now serves as a sculpture that looks like something out of Willy Wonka’s factory.

The Bubble Chamber. Definitely the winner of the trips What in the hell is that?! award.

The Bubble Chamber. Definitely the winner of the trip's "What in the hell is that?!" award.

Its a little unclear why the Bubble Chamber has to look so much like a spaceship. It even has a door.

It's a little unclear why the Bubble Chamber has to look so much like a spaceship. It even has a door.

And why did they need SO MANY of these inputs (or outputs)?

And why did they need SO MANY of these inputs (or outputs)?

The Bubble Chambers instrument-lined legs. Or possibly its rocket nozzles.

The Bubble Chamber's instrument-lined legs. Or possibly its rocket nozzles.

The lab is also home to a herd of bison. In the past, one was killed at the end of every summer for a barbeque, and a stuffed bison head still hangs above the pool table in the lab’s Users’ Center. Today, the bison are left to peacefully make their home in part of the lab’s prairie preserve.

Fermilabs bison, which, urban legend holds, serve the role of canaries in a mine: if something goes really wrong at Fermilab, you can tell because the bison start dying off.

Fermilab's bison, which, urban legend holds, serve the role of canaries in a mine: if something goes really wrong at Fermilab, you can tell because the bison start dying off.

Bison calves at play.

Bison calves at play.

If Wilson could afford to build his weird dream lab because he stuck to the budget, Fermilab can afford to remain this quirky and strange because it is home to the Tevatron, which has been the world’s most powerful particle accelerator since 1983. The machine’s most important discovery was the 1995 observation of the top quark, which filled in the last missing piece in the Standard Model’s prediction of six quarks. (The fifth quark to be observed, the bottom quark, was discovered at Fermilab, too, but using fixed target experiments in 1977.) The Tevatron has been the heart of particle physics for the last 25+ years, and its presence has defined Fermilab since it was built.

Even when the data doesn’t shake the foundations of physics, the Tevatron provides a view into an aspect of reality that was previously accessible only to theory and imagination. As the most powerful collider in the world for so long, it remains the only place in the world — indeed, perhaps the only place in the universe since shortly after the Big Bang — where certain conditions and types of matter exist.

The Tevatron has two detectors: the Collider Detector Facility (CDF) and DZero, which is named for its position on the accelerator ring. We visited CDF on this visit:

The CDF detector building at the Tevatron. The detector you see in the center is actually just an enormous photograph. The detector itself is nestled behind the door on the right of the above image and is only brought out into the room for repairs.

The CDF detector building at the Tevatron. The detector you see in the center is actually just an enormous photograph. The detector itself is nestled behind the door on the right of the above image and is only brought out into the room for repairs.

The door hiding the CDF detector at the Tevatron.

The door hiding the CDF detector at the Tevatron.

Of course, once can’t talk about the Tevatron these days without talking about the LHC. Once it gets up and running, the LHC will produce collisions that are seven times more powerful than the ones at the Tevatron — essentially leaving the older accelerator in the dust when it comes to the search for the Higgs boson, supersymmetry, and other fields of Beyond the Standard Model physics that require higher energy machines. So what happens to the Tevatron? What happens to Fermilab? And more importantly, what happens to the thousands of scientists who have built their careers (and often, their lives) around Fermilab’s accelerator?

When I worked at Fermilab four years ago, I never heard anything but enthusiasm for and excitement about the prospect of the LHC. But it was clearly difficult for the lab to imagine itself playing second-highest-energy fiddle to CERN. Wilson Hall is even home to a remote LHC control room, so scientists at Fermilab can monitor the machine while their CERN counterparts are sleeping. A practical move, but one that seems to scream, “Don’t forget about us!”

The LHC Control Room located at Fermilab.

The LHC Control Room located at Fermilab.

In 2005, the Tevatron was scheduled to be shut down in 2009. Now they’re talking about running through 2011, and given how difficult starting up the LHC is proving to be, the shut down date could be pushed back even further. When I asked CDF’s Gene Flannagan when he thought we’d be saying goodbye to the machine, he said, “They’ve been talking about turning the Tevatron off since I came here in 1999, so I have no idea.”

The Tevatron is now running better than ever. The machine’s luminosity (number of collisions) has increased so much in the last few years that it’s actually been difficult for the experiments to keep up. CDF expects to double its data sets in the next two years, and after decades of operation, the scientists have a pretty good idea of where to look for the most exciting results. It’s even possible the Tevatron experiments could detect the Higgs, if they get lucky and the particle has a low enough mass.

No matter how many low-mass Higgs searches the detectors run or how many remote control rooms Fermilab builds, the Tevatron will never be the LHC. But that doesn’t mean it’s automatically obsolete. In fact, as long as the LHC remains mired in technical difficulties, the Tevatron’s independence may prove to be its greatest strength. Shiny new machines dominate news about Big Science, but often older means wiser. I was struck by how smoothly everything runs at CDF — they actually manage to take date 24 hours a day when the machine is running, and many of the youngest collaborators have never even seen the detector because things need to be fixed so rarely. After 25 years, the Tevatron and the scientists who work with it know what they’re doing.

I have no doubt that the Tevatron will remain a vital part of high energy physics for many years, whether in its current capacity or serving a new and unexpected purpose. If Oak Ridge can find use for an 8-track player, Fermilab should be able to keep the second most powerful particle accelerator in the world alive.

Fermilabs Wilson Hall at sunset. Naturally, the building was designed by Robert Wilson.

Fermilab's Wilson Hall at sunset. Naturally, the building was designed by Robert Wilson.

Stay tuned for more about Fermilab’s neutrino research and the development of the International Linear Collider (ILC), the postulated successor to the LHC.

6 responses to “Robert Wilson’s Weird Dream Lab: Fermilab, part 1

  1. My Ph.D. thesis was on the 15 foot bubble chamber (probably one of the last students in the modern era to work on it).

    It was quite the beast! There was a huge, 3 Tesla, magnetic field around it – you couldn’t use regular metal tools when the field was on; when you walked on it or around it, the metal in your belt and shoes caused noticeable effects. If you used an oscilloscope, the magnetic field made the display all wonky!

    For my experiment we filled it with a mix of liquid Hydrogen and Neon; the H2 made it flammable, so we had to house our electronics (near the chamber) in boxes which was continuously flushed with Nitrogen to prevent sparking…. Read More

    And when it was on, it made this deep thump whenever the piston compressed the many tons of liquid; this would happen about 3 times a minute – whenever the neutrino beam was fired its way.

    Ah, those days ;-)

  2. Fermilab provided me with a career a man could only dream about. I had the privilege of working on a variety of particle detectors through my career. With my mentor Muzaffer Atac I progressed from spark chambers, to proportional chambers, then it was drift chambers, and culminated in silicon detectors. I have fond memories of working on fixed target experiments in all three-beam lines. The experiments did not last too long and I participated in many of the end of run, summer bashes for a job well done. When I was drafted into the CDF group with Muzaffer in the early seventies I thought I would have a project for a year or so and move on. CDF became a career and I participated in it for well over 25 years. One of my labors of Love was the CTC; it challenged my mental and physical abilities to their extreme. At that time my daughter Michelle was only five years old. Close to a couple of decades later she grew up and participated in construction of the COT, the detector that replaced my lovely CTC. Having built the largest Central tracking chamber for CDF, I helped to design, build, and commission the smallest detector. With one of the greatest group of people in the world we designed, built, and commissioned the SVX, the first colliding beam silicon detector at Fermilab. This detector went into the CTC and was the closest detector to the beam line and the first detector to see collisions. Then I got involved in upgrading the SVX to SVX Prime. I thought I did all I could and it was time to move on, not so. I was assigned to aid in upgrading the SVX Prime to SVX II. After completing that task I was asked to get involved in a detector that would provide additional layers of silicon to complement SVXII, at that time the ISL became the largest silicon detector in the world. My job was finally done, not so, I was asked the nearly impossible put a detector inside SVXII; the infamous Layer Zero. Thus after all of that, Layer Zero was my last Hurrah!!! My days at CDF finally came to a close. My deepest regret was participating in a silicon upgrade project for CDF and D0, project SVX IIB. The joke was that II B was NOT TO BE because it was cancelled. The reason for it was that the colliding program was going to come to an end by 2008; LHC would be running therefore there was no reason for SVX IIB to be implemented. The designs of the silicon projects of CDF and D0 were elegant and should have been built and commissioned. Oh what great music they would of made with the Tevetron running as well as it is today. My last joy was collaborating with D0 with their Layer Zero detector. Thus after many years of helping to build interesting detectors for a variety of experiments my days of working for Fermilab came to a close and I faded away into retirement. I miss the work but not as much as the people. I worked with the greatest people in the world; they not only came from all over the country but from all over the world. The cultural and intellectual interactions I had with my colleagues from all over the U.S.A., Europe and Asia will never be forgotten. I hope that Fermilab will continue to operate the Colliding Beam program for a few more years so my daughter can take my grandson and granddaughter on a tour of CDF and point to the Detector and say to them “Look at that big detector, Mom built some of this detector, and by the way your Grand Pa had something to do with it also.”

  3. Paul C. Czarapata

    I started working at Fermilab 37 years ago when the Meson Detector Building was still under construction. The unique roof serves a purpose that many don’t know about. It supports the 20 ton crane inside so there is no need for supports down to the floor. This lets the crane traverse the entire building with a load. Another detail is the copper clad dome in the fourth picture is actually covering the real roof. It was made out of colorful fiberglass sheets seperated by pop cans with the tops and bottoms removed. It was truely pretty. One feature of these roofs is they leak! Many Directors since Wilson have spent money trying to preserve the look and stop the leaks! Even with a leaky roof the Meson Detector building took on an interesting look when experimenters would place umbrella’s over the sensitive electronics. It turned into a field of red blue and green mushrooms. I now work in the Accelerator Division and have a few good years left in me. I hope with our colleagues at CDF and DZero that we can find the Higgs before the grand old gal (tevatron) changes her role in the future of science!

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  5. Pingback: Fermilab’s strange architecture « SplitFocus

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