Logo IMG


Particles on the Prairie

Kate Scholberg

FERMILAB: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience. Lillian Hoddeson, Adrienne W. Kolb and Catherine Westfall. xiv + 497 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2008. $45.

Leon%20M.%20LedermanClick to Enlarge ImageFermilab describes the birth of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, its early days on the Illinois prairie and its rise to become a world center of “megascience.” The authors are not practicing physicists, but theirs is still very much an insider’s view: Lillian Hoddeson, who is the Thomas M. Siebel Professor of History of Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was first hired by Fermilab to document its history in 1977. Adrienne Kolb has been the archivist at Fermilab since 1983; her husband Rocky started the first astrophysics group there. And Catherine Westfall (who is a visiting associate professor at Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University and has worked at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory) wrote on Fermilab’s history in her dissertation, which was directed by Hoddeson, and then continued to work with Hoddeson on the lab’s history with the help of a National Science Foundation grant.

Although their book covers just one slice of international activity in particle physics, the story is a fascinating one, and they tell it well. The text is sometimes heavy on technical details, which will be of interest primarily to specialists. But the narrative is enlivened by anecdotes, and the authors’ insightful commentary will appeal to those wishing to understand the evolution of today’s huge collaborations in the field of high-energy physics.

At the center of the story are two charismatic personalities, each with a distinct and effective style. Robert Rathbun Wilson, the founding director of the laboratory, was a cowboy, engineer and aesthete; his successor, Leon M. Lederman, was a brilliant physicist and organizer. The authors treat the visionary Wilson with reverence and the wise, wisecracking Lederman with affection.

The book begins in the early 1960s. In the postwar era, resources for science were abundant, and physicists were engrossed in the hunt for new particles and interactions. Progress required particle beams of ever higher energy and intensity. At the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley (now Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), the home of Ernest Orlando Lawrence’s first cyclotron, expert accelerator builders were in the lead for the design of the next machine to accelerate protons to several hundred gigaelectron volts (GeV) of energy.

Although Berkeley’s expensive, conservative design was initially favored, in 1966 the Atomic Energy Commission selected a site in Weston, Illinois, for the new facility. And in a move that further undermined the power base in California, the Universities Research Association—the organization of 25 major research universities that had planned and would manage the new National Accelerator Laboratory—appointed Wilson as its director. A former student of Lawrence and the main driver behind Cornell University’s successful electron synchrotron, Wilson had been an outspoken critic of the Berkeley design, blasting it as bloated and wasteful. His credo, the authors report, was “that any technology that worked the first time was overdesigned and thus overpriced,” and his style was to cut costs to a bare minimum, sometimes taking serious risks in doing so.

As director, Wilson set about creating the laboratory according to his vision. It was built over the next few years, with the Main Ring accelerator (which was four miles in circumference) as its centerpiece. The authors describe these years as ones of hardship, with the scientists having to endure cold, leaks, mud and insects. Wilson encouraged them by telling them that they were pioneers struggling on the frontiers of knowledge.

Some of Wilson’s risk-taking was indeed punished: The National Accelerator Laboratory suffered a serious crisis—the failure of many of the Main Ring magnets—in 1971. However, his gambles paid off in the long run. A proton beam of 200 GeV was achieved in 1972; its intensity was ramped up to 400 GeV by 1975, and in May of 1976 the Main Ring ran briefly at 500 GeV. In 1974, in honor of Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, the laboratory was given the name it has today.

Fermi%20National%20Accelerator%20LaboratoryClick to Enlarge ImageWilson was not just a scientist but also an artist who created a number of elegant sculptures. He favored a lean, spare aesthetic. Working closely with Fermilab architects, he left his distinct mark on the striking design for “the High-Rise,” the lab’s central office building, which is 250 feet tall. Towering above the prairie, it is visible from afar. Wilson valued the natural setting for the laboratory and promoted environmental preservation.

For Fermilab’s scientific program, Wilson’s goal was a succession of cheap, quick and clever experiments. Leon Lederman of Columbia University had significant influence during this era, winning the director’s favor by playing with good humor to Wilson’s style.

Scientifically, Fermilab’s start was somewhat slow and unsteady. The laboratory lost priority for discovery of the charm quark and for the discovery of a new kind of weak interaction, the “neutral current.” The first reported discovery of a new particle by Lederman’s group turned out to be erroneous; initially dubbed the upsilon, it was famously renamed the “oops-Leon.” But redemption came when a real new particle containing “bottom” quarks was discovered in 1977 and granted the name upsilon.

Wilson’s next plan, called the “Energy Doubler,” was to upgrade the beam energy to 1,000 GeV, or 1 teraelectron volt (TeV), using energy-saving superconducting-magnet technology and colliding beams. He did not ultimately succeed in bringing the project to fruition, though. In the mid-1970s, as government agencies were reorganized, he lost many of his powerful Washington allies, and in 1978, faced with a lack of funding for his project, Wilson resigned.

Lederman then took the reins. The authors describe how he built the political backing required to win resources for the Doubler, and how he carefully cultivated support within the Department of Energy, the new funding agency. In 1983 the Doubler beam was turned on, and the accelerator soon became known as the Tevatron.

Lederman did not agree with Wilson’s philosophy of keeping the lab’s scientists slightly starved for resources, so experiments were better funded and generally more reliable. Lederman also strengthened international collaborations, furthered Wilson’s ecological initiatives and developed programs of public outreach and education. Experiments grew larger and more complex. Soon, true megascience reigned as activity ramped up for the several hundred physicists working in the “Collider Detector at Fermilab” (CDF) collaboration and another several hundred working on DZero, a newer giant collider detector across the Main Ring from CDF. Ironically, projects at the lab had grown very far from Wilson’s ideal “that science should be pursued by lone independent explorers.” Instead they were in line with “the reality that research into the heart of matter requires large, typically more bureaucratic, team efforts.”

The authors clearly regard the Lederman era as a golden age, but eventually it came to an end. In the late 1980s, the Superconducting Super Collider was on the horizon. This was to be a 10-TeV-on-10-TeV proton-proton collider, which would dwarf existing accelerators and could be used to probe more deeply into the nature of matter.

Competition to host this machine was fierce, and despite Lederman’s best efforts, Fermilab did not win. An anecdote illustrates Lederman’s leadership on the day he had to confirm the rumors that a site in Waxahachie, Texas, had been selected for the Superconducting Super Collider:

Lederman had prepared a surprise for his people. He hoped it would relieve their distress. That morning he had asked that a large Stetson hat be placed under the podium, out of view of his audience. . . . Now he surprised his audience by pulling it out and placing it on his head. As he faced them, they burst into laughter.

Lederman then said, “I don’t know if we have such a thing as a prairie hat,” provoking more laughter. His subsequent speech encouraged his people to keep physics going at Fermilab for another 10 to 15 years. And indeed, Fermilab’s program continued to flourish after Lederman stepped down the following year, and also beyond the 1993 decision of Congress to terminate the Superconducting Super Collider.

The Main Injector, an upgrade of the Main Ring accelerator in the early 1990s, led to Fermilab’s discovery in 1995 of the top quark, the last of the six quarks. The book draws to a close at that point. But Fermilab’s story was not over then; it continues today. Since the discovery of the top quark, the laboratory has continued to pursue a rich program of research in physics. However, the Tevatron will shut down within the next few years. International attention has shifted to the Large Hadron Collider in Europe.

Fermilab’s long-term future is currently unclear, although research continues there on questions of neutrino mass, the Higgs boson, supersymmetry and new properties of matter. Ambitious plans are in the works for new high-intensity beams, for astrophysical initiatives, and for perhaps being the eventual site of the International Linear Collider, an electron-positron collider 31 kilometers in length, which will be designed to explore physics in ways that would exceed the capacity of the Large Hadron Collider. One may hope for a sequel to this book, describing the next expansion of the frontier of particle physics.

Kate Scholberg is an associate professor of physics at Duke University. She studies neutrinos with Super-Kamiokande, an underground detector in Japan. Her primary research interests are the observation of neutrinos from supernovae and the study of atmospheric and beam neutrinos.

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: On the Origin of Origin Stories

Book Review: O Pioneer

Book Excerpt: Cypherpunks Write Code

Subscribe to American Scientist