Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, October 15, 1999  |  Number 20
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

State Senate Hearings Give a Boost to Techonology In Illinois

by Mike Perricone

The Illinois State Senate High Technology Task Force came to Fermilab seeking ideas for nurturing and expanding the influence of technology on the growth of the state's economy, and the state legislators found significant examples right below their feet.

Fermilab Director Michael Witherell "To high technology exports from Illinois, you can now add neutrinos," said Fermilab Director Michael Witherell, referring to the MINOS experiment that will send a beam of those puzzling subatomic particles through the earth from the Lab to a 5,000-ton detector nearly 450 miles away in Soudan, Minnesota.

Illinois State Senator Kirk Dillard(left) hopes the task force's findings will encourage the growth of high-paying jobs in the state. The task force, chaired by State Senator Kirk Dillard (R-41), held a hearing at Fermilab on October 6. The panel heard Witherell describe the state's contribution of a $2.2-million challenge grant in 1991, which played a major role in enabling the start of construction on the new Main Injector accelerator and Antiproton Recycler, located 30 feet underground just a few hundred yards from the site of the hearings in Wilson Hall. The Main Injector will also supply the proton beam used to create the beam of neutrinos sent to the Soudan detector.

Senator Dillard emphasized that the goal of the High Technology Task Force is finding ways to help create "good, high-paying jobs" in the state, to formulate policies that encourage entrepreneurship in such areas as information technology, and to establish Illinois as a world technological leader.

As Witherell pointed out, the accelerator technology developed at Fermilab, and at other high-energy physics labs, has extended its reach into such wide-ranging fields as medicine and materials science. In developing the 1,000 superconducting magnets that make up the Tevatron, Fermilab also provided the technology basis for the Large Hadron Collider now being constructed at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

Witherell cited the creativity of physicists in developing the tools they need for their work, specifically making use of the most advanced computers available, as well as developing software and making the most extensive use possible of PC's and workstations to build computing power. And no discussion of information technology can ignore the development of the World Wide Web at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. Invented by physicists to share data, the Web has spawned the incalculable commercialization potential we know today.

High-energy physics, Witherell stressed, has a time-honored history of cooperation among scientists, and of the sharing of information and expertise. Witherell noted that representatives of the R.R. Donnelley Corporation recently met with Fermilab physicist G.P. Yeh and his colleagues working on the introduction of the LINUX operating system to a Lab computing project. The Donnelley executives had seen a story about the Fermilab project in a computing journal, prompting an inquiry and the meeting.

Representatives from a wide range of companies spoke on an array of topics. The witnesses stressed the need for more information on government assistance available to start-up companies; the need for the private banking sector to loosen up its loan policies for start-up ventures; and the need for installing broadband technology throughout the state to encourage growth in the information technology and technology transfer sectors.

Addressing the question of technology transfer, Fermilab Associate Director for Administration Bruce Chrisman noted that 80 percent of the graduate students working at the Lab go on to work in other fields. He said the Lab's most effective means of spreading expertise was by moving van.

One of the witnesses personified that general concept. Barry Sullivan, now an Ameritech executive, recalled that he had worked summers at Fermilab as a technician while earning an electrical engineering degree from Marquette University.

"The role that the railroad played in the economic growth of the previous century," Sullivan told the panel, "will be played by information technology in this century."

Gary Bachula, the U.S. Dept. of Commerce Acting Undersecretary for Technology, called technology "the driving engine of economic growth." He had the numbers to prove Sullivan's assertion: Bachula said technology was responsible for 50 percent of the growth in the standard of living in the U.S. since the end of World War II; in the last five years, he said, information technology alone was responsible for one-third of the growth.

Rev. John Minogue, president of DePaul University, testified that `Government has to do the things nobody else wants pay for because there's no immediate commercial potential.' Rev. John Minogue, President of DePaul University and a board member of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said, "Government has to do the things that nobody else wants to pay for because there's no immediate commercial potential." He described his university's program for computer training aimed at older students. He said education had to move away from the old model of training a few bright people, and adopt an approach of helping the country develop "intellectual capital."

Sen. Dillard expressed concern about an obstacle to developing that intellectual capital. "When it comes to teaching science," he said, "we start to lose kids at around the fourth grade."

Witherell replied that Fermilab regards itself as an educational institution, with many educational programs geared not only for students but for teachers as well.

"We focus on explaining what science is, how it works, and why it's exciting," Witherell said. "That's most important, giving teachers a spark they can bring to their classrooms."

Chrisman added that while the Lab's goal is to improve the quality of science teaching, the education outreach extends from physics to ecological science. Many schools schedule field trips to view the Lab's ongoing prairie restoration program.

"Education is one of our prime activities," Chrisman concluded. "Knowledge is the foundation of future technology."

last modified 10/15/1999   email Fermilab