Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, March 19, 1999  |  Number 6
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

A Homecoming for Witherell

"I am coming with a lot of excitement and curiosity about the physics we have ahead of us; optimism about the future of the field and the Laboratory; and a great respect for Fermilab’s staff and users."

by Sharon Butler

Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, but Fermilab’s director-designate Michael Witherell has proved him wrong.

An experimenter here from 1978 to 1990, Witherell returned on March 5 when the Universities Research Association, Inc., formally announced that he would take the helm after current Laboratory director John Peoples steps down on June 30.

"I am looking forward to coming back to Fermilab as director," the 49-year-old Witherell told reporters, staff, URA and government officials, colleagues and friends. "I am coming with a lot of excitement and curiosity about the physics we have ahead of us; optimism about the future of the field and the Laboratory; and a great respect for Fermilab’s staff and users."

URA timed the announcement of Witherell’s appointment to coincide with a meeting of Fermilab’s Board of Overseers. The director-designate spent the day fielding questions from journalists, posing for photographers, shaking hands with colleagues, and acknowledging welcoming applause at the Board meeting, a press conference, and a Lab-wide staff meeting in Ramsey Auditorium that was broadcast over the internal cable channel.

John Kennedy, acting manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Chicago Operations Office, attended the official announcement for the press, in a show of support, and brought congratulations from Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson. Richardson commended URA for "finding such a highly qualified scientist to lead this great laboratory" and pledged to "work closely with [Witherell] to ensure that the U.S. remains a world leader in particle physics research."

Peter Rosen, associate director for high-energy and nuclear physics in DOE’s Office of Science also sent words of praise and good wishes.

In an e-mail message that was read at the press conference and the staff meeting, Rosen said that Witherell "has the depth of experience, breadth of vision, and wisdom necessary to lead our premier laboratory into the next millennium, building upon the strong foundation laid by the present director."

The Search Committee that Fermilab’s Board of Overseers appointed to identify candidates for the position of director may have worked for a year, but for Witherell, "things have been moving very quickly." Just two months ago, he said, he was faced with having to decide whether to enter the final stages of consideration for the position. He was clearly torn, for it would mean changing careers; leaving the excellent physics department and his colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and foregoing his involvement in SLAC’s BaBar experiment, which will study CP violation in B mesons, a phenomenon of keen interest to physicists all over the world. The move to Fermilab would also disrupt the successful academic career of his wife, Beth, who heads a research project at the university to publish a new edition of the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Northern Illinois University has since eagerly agreed to be the project’s new home.

"In the end," Witherell told staff members crowded into Ramsey Auditorium, "I was persuaded by the fact that nothing else is as important to the field as the future of Fermilab and that, [as director], I would be able to do what I could to shape that future."

Witherell said that he had two goals as director of Fermilab: "to advance high-energy physics in the U.S. and to have Fermilab continue to be a superb research facility." Those two goals, he said, were inextricably linked. "Fermilab is the largest and most important laboratory in high-energy physics, and the field will do well only if Fermilab does well."

He sees the director’s job as divided into three parts: "managing this large and diverse lab so as to do the best science; working with the high-energy physics community to help lead a broad effort to plan the future program for our field in this country; and convincing the right people in Washington that what we are doing is worth funding."

With experiments either under construction or already under way addressing the central issues in high-energy physics today–supersymmetry, the Higgs particle(s), neutrino oscillations–Witherell declared that Fermilab was "in the perfect situation." But the "hard part in the next few years," he said, would be ensuring that "we take advantage of that position, while at the same time preparing for the future of the field."

As Chair of the High-Energy Physics Advisory Panel, Witherell said, he had just written a letter to the director of DOE’s Office of Science, Martha Krebs, explaining why the President’s budget request of $697 million for fiscal year 2000 was inadequate.

"The most important and most difficult issue for high-energy physics and for Fermilab is to plan how we are going to remain at the energy frontier in the long term," Witherell said. "For high-energy physics to remain strong in the U.S., as strong as it is today, we need to have a new facility at the energy frontier."

Witherell also pledged Fermilab’s close cooperation with SLAC in shaping the future of the particle physics program in the U.S. "We need to match the plans for designing and building new facilities to the capabilities of the existing laboratories, and we need to have Fermilab and SLAC working together to use the strengths of both labs in a way that best serves the field," Witherell said. "In the future the two labs must make their plans with the understanding that both labs need to prosper for the field to prosper."

At the press conference, Witherell reflected back to earlier days at Fermilab, when, as a 21-year-old physicist, he witnessed the building of the Main Ring. The design, construction and operation of the accelerator by dedicated Fermilab staff, and the support given by DOE, enabled Witherell to conduct the particle physics experiments he loved, experiments that broke new ground in the study of heavy-quark states.

He realized, he said, that his time had now come to serve other young scientists, and enable them to do the research that will deepen our understanding of the physical world.

Peoples, who will be returning to research, quickly interjected: "Not just younger scientists, I hope, but old ones, too."

last modified 3/19/1999   email Fermilab