The last big bang | Feature | Chicago Reader

The last big bang 

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory looks at life after the Tevatron, its giant particle collider, while farmers look back on a prairie that used to be theirs

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In the beginning, there was heat and density, and then a rapid expansion—a big bang. The universe grew violently, according to the theory, in infinitesimal fractions of seconds. The mess of motion and collision yielded the smallest particles; matter was created in greater amounts than antimatter. Over time, atomic fortuity produced galaxies, and us.

That's the short version—the gloss. Physicists have been trying to fill in the details about the fundamental makeup of the universe since at least 1909, when Ernest Rutherford, who's known as the father of nuclear physics, fired charged particles at a sheet of gold foil and confirmed the existence of the atomic nucleus. In the intervening century, projects like Rutherford's have grown in size and ambition: physicists hope that by re-creating conditions not seen in the universe since its birth, they'll better understand it. For the last 40 years, those primordial conditions have been the quarry of particle physicists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory—Fermilab—in Batavia.

At first glance it's serene at Fermi, a respite amid suburban sprawl—the lab reintroduced native prairie and installed herds of bison on its 6,800-acre campus. Below the surface, though, physicists study the universe with the help of a four-mile-around particle accelerator called the Tevatron, which they inject with protons and antiprotons. Employing more than 1,000 superconducting magnets about 25 feet underground, the machine spins beams of the particles toward each other at a clip approaching the speed of light, while two detectors study the resulting collisions.

click to enlarge Fermilab log noting an early collision event - FERMILAB
  • Fermilab log noting an early collision event
  • Fermilab

Because some particles exist so briefly—the top quark, for instance, an elementary particle, lasts only 10-25 to 10-26 seconds, too fleeting for the detectors to read—scientists look at what they decay into. Bruce Chrisman, Fermi's chief operating officer, gives the example of a Swiss watch: "You've got a hammer, which is our accelerator. You've got a Swiss watch, which is a proton in our case. And those are your tools, and you want to find out how the Swiss watch works, so you take the hammer, and you hit the Swiss watch. Pieces fly out—they're bent, and so forth—but you do it often enough, a few of them aren't bent, and if you're clever enough, eventually you figure out how to put the Swiss watch back together again and figure out how it works."

Among the discoveries made here were the top and bottom quarks—particles thought to be some of the most elemental in the universe, the particles that make other particles possible. When Fermi turned on the Tevatron in 1983, some protested that the collisions it produced might bring about the end of the world—these were big-bang conditions that scientists were trying to create, after all.

The Tevatron ends now, though, not with a big bang but with a whimper of austerity. Though the machine's current run was scheduled only through 2011, scientists hoped for a three-year extension. Last October a Department of Energy advisory panel urged that it keep running if sufficient financial resources could be scared up—an extended run would require an additional $35 million a year, the panel noted. But the DOE, which funds the lab, affirmed in January that the Tevatron would be shut down as planned. In a response to the panel's recommendations, W.F. Brinkman, director of the DOE's Office of Science, agreed that the machine still had work to do.

"Unfortunately," Brinkman wrote, "the current budgetary climate is very challenging and additional funding has not been identified." The distinction of being the world's largest particle accelerator—for decades the Tevatron's—now belongs to the Large Hadron Collider, a machine in Europe that will generate seven times as much energy. The Tevatron goes offline Friday at 2 PM.

About 450 people lived in Weston, a tiny farming community in DuPage County, when it was dissolved in 1969 to make way for the construction of Fermilab. Weston had just wanted an economic boost; when the town lobbied to be the site of a new particle physics lab, it didn't know that it would be supplanted.

click to enlarge Houses that were once scattered across thousands of acres were hauled by truck to a centralized location, called Fermilab village, that now provides lodging for students and scientists. - FERMILAB
  • Houses that were once scattered across thousands of acres were hauled by truck to a centralized location, called Fermilab village, that now provides lodging for students and scientists.
  • Fermilab

A couple years earlier, Weston village president Arthur Theriault had heard that the Atomic Energy Commission was looking for a home for its new particle accelerator. At the time Theriault was "thinking about an industrial park" as a tool for development, he later told the Tribune. A traditional industrial park this wasn't, but Theriault thought that the accelerator lab might bring the town the economic growth it'd been seeking—that a "science city" could form with the lab as its basis. Earlier schemes had failed: ambitious plans by developer William G. Riley to grow the town by 11,000 homes and one enormous shopping mall fell through because of objections from DuPage County, and because Riley lacked the financing.

In December 1966 the Atomic Energy Commission chose Weston for the new lab. Weston had ample space for housing scientists, the University of Chicago and other colleges weren't far away, and the town was just a 30-minute drive from O'Hare. The science city wouldn't be Weston, though—it would swallow Weston. The AEC's plans had the lab displacing the town entirely, with the state using eminent domain to capture the land and transfer ownership to the lab.

The village, including president Theriault, reversed itself and mounted a campaign, which by early 1968 had turned to threats of lawsuits, to block the accelerator. The grievance was less with the AEC than with the state's department of business and economic development, which villagers felt should offer greater assistance in moving the town, intact as a municipality, to land next to the lab grounds. It was also with DuPage County, which denied the villagers an adjacent plot of 150 acres they'd tried to annex. "We like our community and we want to keep it together but the state has not expressed any willingness to help us," Theriault told the Trib in May 1968.

Appeals were unsuccessful. Glenn T. Seaborg, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, broke ground in December 1968 for what was then called the National Accelerator Laboratory. (The lab was renamed in 1974 for physicist Enrico Fermi, who created the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago in 1942.) Nearly a year after the groundbreaking, land that held 85 homes and 66 farms had been taken over by the state of Illinois and given to Fermilab. Some of the residents bought out by the state were profiled in the Trib. "Sure, we hate to leave this home," said "Mrs. Wolsfeld," wife of "Robert." "It's so old and elegant. We'll never again have a house with a sitting room and an old fashioned parlor." Her husband said that he worked 138 acres of "the best farm land in Illinois. It's hard to leave but I guess we have to make room for progress."

"There were some families who were very upset" with being relocated by the state, says Ronald Anderson, who was in college when the state bought his family's land in 1968. "Some of the farmers didn't think they were being treated fairly. They didn't want to move, but if they had to move, they wanted top dollar for what they were selling." He says, though, that the dictate to move was a "godsend" to his mother. Her husband had died shortly before the announcement that the lab would be built atop Weston, and "her whole life had changed anyway," Anderson says. "I suppose she could have kept the farm, but she probably would have sold it in any case."

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