You need tunnel vision to spend summer here

August 10, 2001

Why are particle physicists from all over the world converging on a three-and-a-half-mile tunnel in Illinois? In the third in our series on what researchers do in summer, Terry Wyatt reports from Chicago's Fermilab.

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman - and a French woman, an Italian, an American, a German, a Russian, a Brazilian, and an Argentine - are drinking coffee together. It is an essential part of the scientific process.

When you work in a collaboration of 600 particle physicists from all over the world, who have built one of the largest pieces of scientific equipment ever constructed, a group coffee is one of the best ways to catch up on the latest news and find out about features of the experiment that nobody bothered to put into the documentation.

Particle physicists are searching for the fundamental constituents of matter and trying to understand how these elementary particles interact. Although present in the early stages of the "big bang", most of these particles do not occur naturally on earth today. To produce them, we need to build large particle accelerators - huge tunnels around which we can accelerate and collide particles.

Three-and-a-half miles in circumference, the Tevatron at Fermilab near Chicago is the most powerful accelerator in the world and the reason we are here. Our hope is that among the billions of particle collisions that will take place at Fermilab, we shall see evidence for as yet undiscovered particles.

Unfortunately, with teaching duties at Manchester University in the United Kingdom, I cannot be here all the time. Rather, for the past year I have been coming to Fermilab for about one week a month. I get a lot done in this time, but eight-hour flights and a six-hour time difference take their toll. And on my return to Manchester, I have to repay colleagues who have covered my teaching load. There is no way of pretending this is anywhere close to ideal.

But thankfully, at least over summer, I can concentrate largely on research and can come to Fermilab for somewhat longer trips, making more efficient use of my time. So I am less likely to resemble a sleep-deprived zombie. Next year I hope to come for most of the summer "vacation".

I am not the only one making the most of non-teaching time to come to Fermilab. Numbers here increase substantially over the summer months. In addition, with the closing of the Lep, the main accelerator at the European particle physics laboratory Cern, a large number of physicists from European universities have come to Fermilab. So, for the next few years Fermilab will be particularly busy.

There is a fantastic buzz from such a large number of bright, hardworking people striving together towards a common aim that they are all really excited about.

This common aim helps to foster a collaborative spirit among a group of people of diverse nationalities and individual characters. I think it helps that the kinds of problems we, as scientists, are trying to solve allow a degree of objectivity in deciding what is a good, and what is an inadequate, solution to a particular problem.

It is a Sunday afternoon, but at Fermilab there are a lot of people around. Weekday evenings are the same. Although we are a large group of people, there is a huge amount of work to be done in building the experiment, keeping it running, writing all the software and analysing the data.

Despite the size of the project, the efforts of individual physicists do not go amiss. Rather, most of the work can be broken into smaller projects that can be tackled by small groups or individuals, so people feel they are having an input.

In fact, it is very satisfying to feel that one is making a personal contribution to the success of an enterprise such as this. It is a fantastic opportunity to work with, and learn from, the best in the world, especially for the young researchers, PhD students and postdocs, who typically spend a couple of years based full-time at Fermilab.

The Fermilab site is rather interesting. When it was first built, this whole area was largely farmland. Now the site is surrounded by the urban sprawl of Chicago, but it has largely retained its rural character with lakes and woods.

Of course, there are the high-tech scientific installations, but these occupy a relatively small fraction of the 10-square-mile area. The village and farmhouses that originally occupied the site are still here. They provide living accommodation for visiting scientists and their families. For a visitor who likes the outdoors, the large number of birds and butterflies you see on a stroll around the main accelerator ring is an extracurricular plus.

Less pleasant are the working conditions. Fermilab has one very beautiful building, the 16-storey Wilson Hall, named after the first director, who took the view that people's creativity and productivity increase if they have pleasant, indeed inspiring, conditions in which to work. Wilson Hall houses the lab administration, canteen, lecture theatres, library and other central facilities.

But we - as many working on the experiments - are in a prefab building. Given the extreme climate, this makes for a less than luxurious working environment. The recent influx of new people has meant that overcrowding is also a problem.

This week, we have a three-day collaboration meeting. This happens every couple of months, an opportunity to step back from the day-to-day struggle and review where we are and what needs to be done. Much of the 600-strong collaboration comes to Fermilab for these meetings, which makes them very interesting, although it does not help with the overcrowding.

Could we not get away without all of this travelling? There is the worldwide web, which was invented at Cern to enable particle physicists to exchange information. Video conferencing can sometimes be useful too, but, at least with the current technology, is no replacement for face-to-face discussion.

As for a coffee chat by video conference? I can't see it, somehow. I suppose I'll have to keep fighting the jet lag.

Terry Wyatt is a reader in experimental particle physics at Manchester University.

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