Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, January 28, 2000  |  Number 2
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Some Words of Wilson

by Mike Perricone

Bob Wilson, writer and speaker, was a good match for Bob Wilson, scientist and innovator.

"He was very exciting," said John Peoples Jr., Fermilab's third director (1989-1999) and a Wilson colleague from the earliest days of the Lab. "He had a remarkable vision of what he wanted, and a romantic and noble way to communicate that to people."

Here are excerpts from his writings, and from his notable appearance before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in 1969. All contribute to a picture of what Wilson's successor as director, Leon Lederman, described as "Wilson, the Whole Man."

The exchange with Senator John Pastore

Pastore: Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

Wilson: No, sir; I do not believe so.

Pastore: Nothing at all?

Wilson: Nothing at all.

Pastore: It has no value in that respect?

Wilson: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has nothing to do with the military, I am sorry.

Pastore: Don't be sorry for it.

Wilson: I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

Pastore: Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

Wilson: Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending. (Testimony before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, April 16, 1969)

On exploring matter

Robert Wilson in the control room at Fermilab "From the most ancient times, philosophers, and most recently physicists, have been preoccupied by the pursuit of the ultimate atom. How elusive it has turned out to be! We are reminded of Milton's words: `And in the lowest deep a lower deep...opens wide.' Yet the search goes on and what has been found so far is both strange and wonderful." ("The Batavia Accelerator," Scientific American, February 1974)

On sculpture

"When I was a graduate student at Berkeley, I used to go into the lab at night when no one was there, and construct big, kind of scary figures from whatever was lying around and leave them there for people to find the next day." (Science Digest, February 1986)

On internationalism

"There has never been a French electricity, or a German mechanics, or an American atomic physics. The whole field advances as one big international collaboration, and physics is the same in every country of the world." (Internationalism in Physics, 1978)

On building cathedrals

"I, as an accelerator builder, have found great satisfaction in relating to the men who built cathedrals in the 13th Century. When Ernest Lawrence built his cyclotron with a dedicated passion, he was not that different from Suger, also with a dedicated passion, building the cathedral at St. Denis [France]. The Abbot Suger was expressing a devotion to the church with his exalted structure, a structure that transcended all contemporary knowledge of strength of materials. And Lawrence, too, expressed in his fashion a devotion to the discovery of truth. He, too, transcended contemporary technology in attaining his dizzying heights of energy." (The Humaneness of Physics, Fermilab 25th anniversary symposium brochure)

On superconductivity

"Superconductivity is a magic potion, an elixir to rejuvenate an accelerator and open new vistas for the future. The property of zero resistance to the flow of electrical current will allow us at Fermilab to double the energy of the proton accelerator from 500 to 1000 GeV, will make possible colliding beam energies with center-of-mass energies up to 2000 GeV, will quite possibly lead to the discovery of the intermediate vector bosons, will save millions of dollars on our electric billóand all this at a modest cost." ("The Tevatron," Physics Today, October 1977)

On joining the war effort at Los Alamos

"It is one thing to take a philosophical position, such as pacifism, when only thoughts and statements, and not actions, are influenced. But it seemed to me that if ever the forces of darkness could be said to be lined up against the forces of light, it was at that timeÖThat night, I chose against the purity of my soul and in favor of a liveable world. Rightly or wrongly, my conscience at the ready, I joined the new laboratory in the morning." ("The Conscience of a Physicist," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1970)

On witnessing the first atomic bomb test at Los Alamos

"My re-awakening from being completely technically-oriented came dramatically on July 16 [1945] as I experienced the test explosion of the first nuclear bomb. It literally dwarfed the great desert basin of the Jornado del Muerto ["Journey of Death" in Spanish] and the mountains all around it. That which had been an intellectual reality to me for some three years had become a factual, an existential reality. There is a very great difference. My technical work was done, the race was run and the full awful magnitude of what we had done came over me. I determined at that moment that having played even a small role in bringing it about, I would go all out in helping to make it a positive factor for humanity." ("The Conscience of a Physicist," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1970).

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