Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, August 20, 1999  |  Number 16
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

FERMILAB--Serving Researchers, Serving Science

by Sharon Butler

"A high-energy accelerator is like the ‘Field of Dreams,’” said a Fermilab physicist. "If you build it, they will come.”

And, indeed, they have. According to the latest statistics, more than 2,000 physicists and graduate students from nearly 200 research institutions in the U.S. and around the world come here to advance the understanding of the building blocks of matter. They are called "users” in the Fermilab vernacular.

From its inception, Fermilab was intended to be a "truly national” laboratory where particle physicists would feel "at home and loved.” And so it remains. Today, of the 2,000-plus scientists who do their research here, some1,407 are from nearly 100 universities and national laboratories in 34 states in the U.S.

But over the years, Fermilab has become a "truly international” laboratory as well. The latest statistics show that 753 scientists come here from 24 countries to probe the secrets of matter and antimatter.

The experiments

With the highest-energy accelerator in the world today, Fermilab is the center of the universe for particle physicists. It is not only a place where they conduct the latest experiments, but a place where scientists gather to collaborate on building new electronics, discuss the latest experimental results, or pore over a late night’s calculations.

Experiments here are in various stages. Some are still on paper: Bids are just going out for the MiniBooNE experiment to build a four-story-high detector that will track neutrinos. Bids are also out for excavation of a tunnel for the MINOS experiment, another scientific collaboration looking for neutrino oscillations. Further along are the upgrades for the CDF and DZero detectors, the colossal assemblies of intricate electronic devices that will home in on the Higgs boson once Run II begins.

Other experiments have just started up. When protons began circulating again in the Tevatron earlier this summer, HyperCP started collecting data to look for CP violation in hyperons, particles that have at least one strange quark and are heavier than protons. KTeV resumed looking for CP violation as well, but in particles called kaons. Both experiments ran during Run I, but have upgraded their detectors to collect more data.

Still other experiments are completed, but scientists are busy analyzing the data they amassed earlier. In the DONUT experiment, for example, experimenters hope the signal they caught on magnetic tape was evidence for the tau neutrino, the only known particle in the Standard Model not yet observed.

The experiments are not just related to particle accelerators, and not even to high-energy physics per se, although at some level, the research all connects. There’s the Cold Dark Matter Search, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which saw "first light” in June 1998 and has already photographed the farthest quasar yet discovered. The Pierre Auger Project, which will study cosmic rays, just broke ground to install detectors in a 3,000-square-kilometer expanse of desert in Argentina. Scientists here at Fermilab have been heavily involved in their design.

The people

Not surprisingly, the majority of scientists here—nearly 1,500—come from U.S. institutions, including universities whose high-energy physics programs rank among the nation’s best. The University of Rochester is one, with a group of 48 physicists and graduate students. Others include the University of Chicago, with 34 physicists and graduate students, and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), with 45.

Greg Snow, a physicist from the University of Nebraska and chair of the Users Executive Committee, said that, like other academic professors, he comes to Fermilab to do research but also to have access to conferences and seminars that would never take place back in Nebraska. "At Fermilab I stay plugged into the latest developments in the field of high-energy physics—and to the gossip,” he said.

Scientists flock here from foreign institutions, too, mindful that there is no comparable facility elsewhere in the world. Many of the research facilities that send physicists to Fermilab are from Russia, including IHEP, in Protvino, JINR, in Dubna, ITEP, in Moscow, and Moscow State University.

Of the total number of scientists at Fermilab, almost 500 are graduate students who are here to do research for their doctoral degrees. In cramped cubicles in trailers mounted on cinder blocks, they sit in front of their PCs, sorting background from meaningful signals, hoping their analyses will merit publication and recognition in the world of high-energy physics.

"Fermilab is a really cool place to work,” said Andrew Green, a leader of the Graduate Student Association. "It’s a real ego boost. Not everyone is selected.”

This year, there are newcomers to Fermilab’s scientific ranks from abroad: The Netherlands has joined, with six physicists now participating in experiments here. But from overseas, there are many more old hands as well.

Indeed, some scientists just can’t stay away, like Bruce Hoenesien, the only physicist from Ecuador—and probably the only physicist who also farms avocado trees. On the DZero experiment, he says, perhaps more so than on his avocado farm, he "feels the excitement of discovering nature’s secrets.”

The scientists who use Fermilab’s facilities come here to use its high-energy beam; all they want is "beam, beam, and more beam,” as a former chair of the Users Executive Committee once put it. That makes the Fermilab staff here invaluable. They are the technicians who solder copper wire to superconducting magnets that steer the beam; the truckers who cart equipment from one building to another, careful not disrupt the delicate electronics; the round-the-clock operators who monitor the beam’s performance from the Main Control Room; the crewmen who answer a page in the middle of the night when a magnet fails, and rush in to rescue; the staff physicists who know how to master the beam.

Janet Conrad, a professor at Columbia University who is cospokesperson for the MiniBooNE experiment, paid tribute to them all. "We succeed” she said, "because the technical and support staff at Fermilab really come through for us.”

last modified 8/20/1999   email Fermilab