Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, April 2, 1999  |  Number 7
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

 Eyewitness to History

Ned goldwasser recalls Fermilab’s "beam-or-bust" days—
with Human Rights as the first priority.

by Mike Perricone

Ned Goldwasser was present at the beginnings of a great adventure in high-energy physics, but on a day dedicated to him, he couldn’t forget that the cities were burning in that formative time for Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Not a building had yet been raised on the 6,800-acre site in March 1967, when the newly named director, Robert R. Wilson, telephoned Goldwasser, then at the University of Illinois, asking him to come on board with the project. Goldwasser, who had served on the committee recommending potential laboratory sites to the Atomic Energy Commission, took the job and agreed to visit Wilson at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. When they met, with Goldwasser agreeing to become the Lab’s first deputy director, they spoke not only about relationships in particle physics, but about relationships among people.

"We spent a large fraction of that meeting," Goldwasser recalled, "discussing our independent but similar notions that the opportunity of building a laboratory at that time, with what was happening in the country, was an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. We wanted to demonstrate that such a project could be started and run in a manner sensitive to some of the racial problems the country was suffering from. Cities were burning. There were large-scale protests against discrimination. Bob felt, and I agreed, that we could and should do something to address those problems."

"The Early Days of Fermilab," an informal mini-symposium honoring Goldwasser’s 80th birthday, was held March 10 at Ramsey Auditorium—which was named for Norman Ramsey, the first speaker at the symposium.

Ramsey won the Nobel Prize winner in 1989 for his invention of the separated oscillatory fields method and its use in the hydrogen maser and other atomic clocks. Ramsey was the first president of Universities Research Association, Inc., the consortium of universities (currently numbering 89) that manages Fermilab for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Bill Fowler, currently associate project manager for the Fermilab Main Injector, joined Fermilab in 1970 to construct the 15-foot hydrogen bubble chamber. He later served as Wilson’s deputy project leader in developing the Tevatron. Fowler summed up the feeling of the Lab’s early days as "cooperation—we had it at that time."

But those early days also are often characterized by the crisis management, "beam-or-bust" outlook described by Rich Orr, who served the Lab in many capacities over 20 years. Orr lauded Wilson and Goldwasser as being "responsible for how Fermilab became Fermilab, as opposed to what it started out to be."

Those early days were a time when buildings were put up before funds were authorized. "We try to start before we’ve been approved," joked current Director John Peoples, "so we know we can finish."

Those early days, at what was then called the National Accelerator Laboratory (the dedication to Enrico Fermi came in 1974), were a time when lines were drawn on such issues as whether the offices of theoretical physicists should be wide open or should have walls and doors.

"Bob Wilson offered us walls and GI furniture, or no walls and real furniture," said Chris Quigg, then as now a puckish theorist. "We took the walls. He never forgave us."

Those days were a time when, even in the midst of the Cold War, experiment collaborators were welcomed from the Soviet Union. Physics experiments transcended international politics.

"Experiments were open to users from all areas," said Yoshio Yamaguchi, a former president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. "I’m very glad that high-energy physics started such a wonderful idea."

Of course, international political considerations were not completely ignored, as Goldwasser remembered from a visit of the director of the Soviet Union’s equivalent of the Atomic Energy Commission. The new Lab’s goal, which Goldwasser said was "encouraged" by the Atomic Energy Commission, was to have beam circulating around the entire Main Ring.

"We worked all night, but we didn’t get it," Goldwasser said. "The whole Soviet entourage was there and we said we were sorry, but we weren’t able to get it done. Later, the Soviet commissioner was alone with Bob Wilson and he told Bob the admission had been very stupid. ‘In the Soviet Union,’ he said, ‘we have learned that it doesn’t matter. They don’t know if it’s a full turn or not. We just tell them we made a full turn and that’s just as good.’"

Those early days, with informality reinforcing grand notions of possibilities, were a time of great hopes for the future of accelerator physics. But the cities were burning. To Goldwasser’s memory, the very location of the new lab grew from the civil rights struggle—and from practical national politics.

"My feeling," Goldwasser said, "is that President Lyndon Johnson made the decision at least in some measure as a tradeoff with Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. At the time this site selection was being made, the Federal Open Housing Bill was before Congress, and it was a very tight matter whether or not it would pass. Everyone knew that when the bill came to a vote in the Senate, it would be very close to a tie. What surprised everyone was that Everett Dirksen, who had a long record of strong positions against anything in the nature of open housing, withheld his vote to the very end, and then he cast his vote in favor of the bill to break a tie. My own feeling is that this had something significant to do with the choice of Illinois for the site."

The Rev. Martin Luther King, angry that the Illinois legislature had soundly rejected a similar bill, had threatened to lead demonstrations blocking the construction of the laboratory in Illinois. The subject of racial tensions dominated the first official meeting of the National Accelerator Laboratory on June 15, 1967, at the design offices in nearby Oak Brook’s Executive Office Plaza.

"Bob asked me to take on the job of going into Chicago," Goldwasser recalled, "and meeting with the leaders of minority groups in an effort to persuade them that we intended to have a very active program for what would now be called affirmative action. There was no such thing in those days, and I’m not sure we coined those exact words, but we told them we expected to find employment for minority people and we expected to try to recruit many of them from among the inner-city gangs in Chicago.

"Those were some of my interesting days. I met with leaders of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but I also met with leaders of the Black Panthers, as well as with gangs in Chicago. I told them what our intentions were, and asked them to give us ideas about how we might proceed."

Soon, the informal affirmative action program took a major step forward when Ken Williams joined the Lab from one of the local hospitals. Williams headed the Lab’s affirmative action efforts for many years.

"The first thing he did," Goldwasser recalled, "was a great relief to me. He took over the responsibility of going into the city and meeting with the gangs. In those meetings, he interviewed individual gang members, trying to evaluate who was really serious about getting out of gang life and getting a real job in the outside world. I felt he had unerring taste and judgement in the people he chose."

Among their efforts, the Lab and the Chicago community leaders cobbled together a program taking kids out of gangs in the city, and sending them to a six-month technical training program. Those who stayed the course would return to the Lab with jobs as technicians. The training program was located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and spending six months in Tennessee in the 1960s might have seemed daunting to young black men from Chicago. But the program worked.

"Over a period of years, many people went through that program," Goldwasser said. "Around the time I left the Lab (in 1978), I think we were about 90 percent successful in retaining those trainees. And most of the people who left had gone on to better jobs. Ken Williams made an enormous contribution to the Laboratory."

Within the first year of the Lab’s operation, Wilson and Goldwasser had also issued a policy statement on human rights, written with the contributions of many people. The one-page document was posted as often and as visibly as possible. On the stage of Ramsey Auditorium, Goldwasser read from the statement’s final paragraph:

"Our support of the rights of the members of minority groups in our Laboratory and in its environs is inextricably intertwined with our goal of creating a new center of technical and scientific excellence."

Those early days of the Lab were a time that won’t soon be forgotten.

last modified 4/2/1999   email Fermilab