Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 25  |  Friday, February 1, 2002  |  Number 2
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Science Finds a Warm Small-Town Welcome in Malargue

by Paul Mantsch
Pierre Auger Observatory

The clock tower presides over the Malargue town square.

The Southern Hemisphere site of the Pierre Auger Observatory is composed of 1,600 particles detectors spread over about a thousand square miles in a very flat part of Mendoza Province, Argentina near a town called Malargüe. We are using the observatory to probe the mysteries of extremely high-energy cosmic rays, very rare particles striking the top of the atmosphere and creating showers of billions of secondary particles that strike the earth. We hope to capture thousands of these events over the next 20 years.

The people of Malargüe have already captivated us.

A town of eight thousand people, Malargüe is nestled between the foothills of the Andes Mountains and a vast arid plain known as the Pampa Amarilla. The nearest large town is 125 miles away, with a single gas station in between. Malargüe’s fortunes have risen and fallen with booms in mining and oil. Unemployment is currently greater than twenty percent. The community sustains itself on the remnants of the oil business, and on ranching and tourism. Malargüe is a pleasant town of warm, friendly people. Crime and other ills of larger cities are rare. There is an abundance of well-educated and skilled workers. A variety of businesses provide services, and good hotels and restaurants remain from the era of past prosperity.

The provincial governor, local mayors and even the president of the country worked hard to bring the Auger Project to Argentina, promising funds for construction and the support of strong physics groups. During our first visits, we were feted with an abundance of Mendoza wine, barbecued spring goat and other specialties of the area. The Malargüe tourist office provided invaluable help, offering their spacious new convention center for our collaboration meetings. The province of Mendoza gave us a beautiful site for our campus, a former tree nursery lined by 60-foot-high poplars.

We began at once to engage the community, meeting with residents and particularly with the ranchers from whom we needed to rent space for our detectors. We offered presentations by our Spanish-speaking collaborators. They were a great hit, attracting overflow crowds of all ages.

We made a special effort to connect with the schools. The people of Malargüe value education highly and have a good school system. Our collaborators visited the schools to make presentations about the project and general science. Students and teachers at several English-language institutes were intrigued. With native English speakers rare, the students eagerly tested their skills on any scientist they could corner.

We had begun naming our detector stations after old girl friends, but we soon ran out of names. Someone suggested having the elementary school children name the detector tanks, and the contest caused lots of excitement. Each entry included a drawing, showing the student’s impression of the observatory and its purpose. Michigan Technical University, an Auger collaborating institution, offered a full scholarship to a student from Malargüe, to be followed by another every two years, with a local committee selecting the candidate—big news in this remote town. The first student is now in his freshman year at MTU and doing very well.

Not only the children have felt the influence of the project. With Auger came a jump in the enrollment of adults at the English language institutes. Shopkeepers were anxious to be able to speak with the scientists coming into their shops. On the bus to Malargüe, an Auger collaborator asked a weathered old gaucho next to him if he knew anything about the project, and was rewarded with a somewhat confused but very enthusiastic description.

We included a visitor center when designing the new building to house our offices and data acquisition center. Pieces of our experimental equipment and explanatory posters are on display. The inauguration ceremonies for the new building attracted a thousand townspeople, the first of a steady stream of visitors.

Mayor Celso Jaque makes a presentation at the dedication of the Pierre Auger Observatory headquarters building. We asked Mayor Celso Jaque if the expectations of the people of Malargüe had been met in the three years since Auger came to town. He said that, although the townspeople have little detailed understanding of what the Auger Project is about, they are extremely proud to have it in Malargüe. At first they weren’t sure that anything would actually happen. They had recently been disappointed when an international mining project fizzled. However, when they saw scientists arriving from all over the world and buildings beginning to rise, their hopes were realized. They understand that the Auger Project will certainly not bring the kind of prosperity of the oil boom but see other, less tangible, but important benefits. They appreciate the close association with Auger scientists and engineers and the contacts with the outside world. They are proud that Malargüe is becoming known around the world as a center for science. Amid the discouragement and hardship of Argentina’s economic crises, these connections keep spirits up and serve as a source of hope for the future.

Malargüe cannot boast an airline link or a symphony orchestra or other advantages we may take for granted at home. But it is hard to imagine a better match than the town and people of Malargüe and the Pierre Auger Project.

On the web:

The Pierre Auger Observatory

last modified 2/1/2002   email Fermilab