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At long last I've made it to Argonne. The 1,700-acre national laboratory has been an enigma to me ever since I started exploring the forest preserves around it ten years ago. There's something about the way it's tucked into the bottom-right-hand corner of Du Page County on my Tribune-McNally Chicagoland map, about the way it's colored the shade of pink mapmakers use for industrial areas and medical centers, about the way the lab grounds form a large, misshapen watermelon encircled by the green rind of the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. On the ground Argonne's property is separated from Waterfall Glen by a high fence, and perhaps I would have been allowed inside years ago if I'd ever taken the time to ask the public-affairs office. But I never did. It took an invitation from Ron Sundell, a biogeographer at Argonne, to get me into the inner sanctum.

I pulled into the facility around lunchtime on Monday last week. After proving my identity to the official at the visitor center and being issued a pass, I was allowed through the gate and into the hallowed confines, where the research ranges from the practical to the most ethereal realms of pure science. Driving slowly, I followed the circular road past clusters of no-nonsense buildings separated by copses of oak and hickory.

Argonne National Laboratory is a research facility operated by the University of Chicago for the Department of Energy. Established in 1946 as a way to retain the scientific expertise that created the nuclear bomb, Argonne was assigned the job of developing a nuclear reactor capable of producing electricity, which it accomplished in 1951. About 1,300 scientists are at work at Argonne today, though many of their projects and jobs are threatened by government cutbacks.

I'm here mostly to learn about Sundell's current project, which has great potential for managers of parks and other large landscapes. It's called the Integrated Dynamic Landscape Analysis and Modeling System (IDLAMS), and though the name sounds heady, this project is at the practical end of the spectrum. The goal is an easy-to-use computer system for land managers that lets them evaluate the results of actions taken on their property.

Sundell showed me a copy of the prototype that's up and running at Fort Riley, Kansas, where troops are trained to operate tanks and heavy artillery, among other things. Not surprisingly, tanks aren't exactly gentle on the land, and Fort Riley's managers face a great challenge in keeping the area from turning into something that resembles the surface of the moon. They're not just worried about wrecking the environment; a moonscape bears little resemblance to the terrain troops would be likely to encounter in combat.

Sundell takes me to the spatial-analysis lab, where high-resolution computer monitors display the system. He demonstrates how IDLAMS takes the information formulated for a standard Geographic Information System--a system that digitizes information about a space, such as vegetation, hydrology, and population--and adds the dimension of time. IDLAMS's strength is that it can help a land manager figure out how planting trees, building soil-stabilization structures, or doing controlled burns will affect the land over 2 years, 10 years, or 20 years.

We leave the building to tour Argonne's grounds in Sundell's pickup. In many ways Argonne operates like an independent city-state, with its own library, service station, swimming pool, cafeteria, lodging, and medical center. Trails loop through the property, and at lunchtime on a 40-degree day the paths are thick with joggers. In one open meadow a small group of men kick a soccer ball. The clusters of buildings are intentionally separated from one another as a way of minimizing damage if there were ever an accident involving radiation or a chemical release. Experiments with nuclear energy have been moved away from the Du Page site to a facility in Idaho, though an inert old reactor, looking like a dollhouse version of the one at Zion, still stands on the grounds.

Sundell drives me to the Advanced Photon Source facility, a gleaming white $467 million structure that's Argonne's pride and joy right now. Definitely occupying the esoteric end of the spectrum, the Advanced Photon Source shoots positively charged electrons around a circular stainless-steel and aluminum tube. Inside the tube is an almost perfect vacuum: all but one of every trillion atoms normally present in the atmosphere have been removed. The particles travel at almost the speed of light, generating X-ray beams an Argonne publication describes as "ultrabrilliant." Much of what scientists have discovered about the arrangement of atoms in DNA and viruses has come from X-ray research, and these ultrabrilliant rays allow scientists to study ever smaller samples and ever more complex systems. The facility will also be used by people doing research in chemistry, physics, and geology.

Touring and reading about Argonne reminds me of my experience reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, a book intended as astrophysics for the layperson. I get it--and at the same time I don't get it at all.

Elemental research is impenetrable except to those working in the field. Just to appreciate the significance of a tool like the Advanced Photon Source requires a level of expertise I don't possess. I can picture myself at a cocktail party throwing out something about having visited the site of the Advanced Photon Source, and I know that if the person I was blabbing to was genuinely interested I'd be squirming and sweating by his third question. (This assumes I would ever be at the kind of party where someone would be interested in Advanced Photon Sources.)

High science has something in common with conceptual visual art, atonal symphonies, and monasteries filled with monks who do nothing but chant for world peace: I may not understand it, but I'm happy to live on a planet where people do these things. Still, I don't know how to weigh their worth relative to education, social programs, and other endeavors the government funds--and I doubt that members of Congress are too hot at it either.

Sundell's IDLAMS project and its applications are much more straightforward, and I easily understand that it would be a shame if it were to be abandoned for lack of funding when it's so close to completion. There's even a close-to-home potential for using his system at the new national grassland that's going to be established on the property of the Joliet Arsenal. This site, with its mix of pasture, farm fields, old industrial buildings, and bunkers where TNT was stored could be altered in so many ways that its managers are essentially creating a nature preserve from scratch. It would be fascinating to use IDLAMS as a crystal ball to get a peek into the future and discover what different courses of action might bring. IDLAMS probably won't be completed on the basis of its ecosystem applications but rather for its defense applications, because the Department of Defense is the only area of government where Congress wants to increase funding.

As we drive we talk about Argonne's landscape. With its savanna setting and large open spaces it could be a great addition to the ecology of the region. Sundell would like to see Argonne manage its grounds in a manner that's environmentally progressive, but this is a low priority for the lab right now because every bit of federal funding is being challenged in Congress.

"We're fighting for our life here," he said.

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