Andrew Groen

Splitting the atom with one of the world’s most powerful machines, and some bison: Touring Fermilab

Splitting the atom with one of the world’s most powerful machines, and some bison: Touring Fermilab

On the outskirts of Chicago, in a small town called Batavia, deep underground, lies one of the most powerful machines mankind has ever built. A ringed device over four miles long, so big it fits several lakes and ponds within its circumference: a particle accelerator called the Tevatron, designed to slice into subatomic particles and study the guts that fly out.

I'm headed to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory with a group of friends as part of the Chicago Nerd Social Club to tour the facility, get a glimpse of these amazing machines, and hopefully pick up a lesson or two about the standard model of physics.

I heard you have bison, please show me the bison

There isn't much to see in the suburbs of Chicago. Buildings taller than a single story are rare, especially an hour west of the city. There's no mistaking Fermilab for anything else: The main building of the compound juts out of the forested landscape like the Monolith from the film 2001.

I'm told it's modeled after a cathedral in France but, honestly, it looks like the original Xbox 360 model. As we approached the building, I felt a surge of pride: My grandfather was one of the workers who helped build this place nearly fifty years ago.

What's immediately noticeable, and fascinating, about Fermilab is that it looks nothing like a laboratory. You approach the campus by winding through ten square miles of restored Illinois prarie and protected forests.

We found out later that Fermilab was meant to be a bastion of the old frontier, built by an administrator who could best be described as a physicist-hippie-sculptor…cowboy: Robert R. Wilson, a former lead on the Manhattan Project. He was a Wyoming native, and reportedly used to ride his horse around the grounds.

There's even a herd of bison that he brought here, and they've lived here since the 60's. Actual bison. It does the heart good to see a species brought back from the brink of exinction, roaming in its natural habitat right in the middle of the heartless suburban sprawl.

Although seeing the bison was my personal secret ulterior motive for coming along on the trip to Fermilab, the group is here to see some science. So after driving past the grand open fields of the campus we moved inside to the terrifying interior of what looked like a Soviet missile base.

The interior of the building was somehow more imposing than the monolithic exterior. Standing in the foyer of the building you can see straight up through a massive skylight on the 250-foot-tall roof. Every inch on the way up is stark grey concrete, much of it adorned with hanging ivy.

Given that it was built in the 1960s, it's hard not to imagine the floor opening up below me and launching a missile straight through the skylight on its way to Moscow. It looks like a level from Goldeneye.

Fermi Cliché Accelerator Laboratory

Up until now the compound has looked exactly the opposite of what I'd expect a particle accelerator laboratory to look like (re: bison,) but once our tour begins it starts to look positively clichéd.

Our tour guide, a kindly woman by the name of Vida Goldstein, makes jokes about Buck Rogers as we enter a veritable factory of science full of whizzbang gadgetry, old steampunk-esque pressure gauges, pistons, and 60s-style computer cabinets full of blinking lights. We're essentially inside the innards of one of Fermilab's smaller linear accelerators and most of the machinery here is still left over from when it was originally built in the 1960s.

Some of the machines (pictured) look as if they couldn't possibly have an actual scientific function. Some look like steampunk technology, but others look like joke-tech from Mystery Science Theater 3000, full of blinking lights and tubes that seem to go nowhere.

The age of these types of machines and experiments means that in some cases they're barely computerized. They're mechanical. It's strange to be reminded that people built machines to split the atom long before they could feed instructions into a computer.

The simplicity of some of the technology is impressive. I'm told the particles are actually accelerated by well-timed blasts of radio waves.

Fermilab: the coolest place on Earth

The picture above is what an accelerator looks like. It's a little disappointing, I know, but you've got to consider that there are four miles of these things, dotted with much more impressive, several story high detectors that we were restricted from seeing. I like to pretend we couldn't go see the detector for fear that we might take pictures and sell them to communist spies, but who knows? Maybe that's the case.

Fermilab has a surprisingly low-key, community feeling. The outside has bison, and the inside has kindly people who are excited to show off their lab's work to visitors. It makes sense given that these days Fermilab is more of a monument to science than a cutting-edge lab. The Tevatron itself was shut down a couple of years ago after the much more powerful accelerator the Large Hadron Collider was built in Europe.

That said, they still do what they can with the tools they still have. They treat cancer patients with neutron beams, and probe the mysteries of dark matter by beaming neutrino particles through the Earth to an iron mine in Minnesota.

Illustrating the small-townness of the operation, we even heard funny stories about animals getting caught in the particle accelerators, as though this was the engine of the General Lee and not one of the world's most impressive machines, which has been probing the universe's secrets for forty years.

At the end of the tour they took us up to the top floor of the building to see the entirety of the complex. From this height, with nothing to obscure the view, we could see the Chicago skyline as a tiny blip in the distance. From here we could see the expanse of man-built wilderness dwarfing all other sights.

The compound is a unique mixture of environmentalism living in harmony with cutting edge science. Bison living side-by-side with quarks and muons. Coyotes looking for mice in the tall grass only a few feet above a ring of anti-protons traveling near the speed of light.

It's essentially the perfect combination of everything I'd love the world to be. I love learning and curiosity, and I love quiet, wide-open spaces. If I had my way, I'd never leave this place. I'd hang out with my wife, my friends, and Vida Goldstein. We'd learn about sub-atomic physics and chill with bison on the prarie.