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The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory is one of the world's premier research facilities. Since it's opening, in 1972, it has had the most powerful accelerator in the world. The Tevatron, it's hallmark accelerator, is capable of energies of a trillion electron volts. Within the next year, CERN in Europe should be bringing on an accelerator with seven times the power. Fermilab plans on shutting down it's Tevatron accelerator, in about three years. With a much larger machine available at CERN, there will be little reason to leave it up. Fermi will then concentrate on it's work with antimatter.
Fermilab is known for many things, other than having the world's most powerful accelerator. It has one of the largest sections of restored prairie in this part of the country, as well as a herd of buffalo. People come here to watch birds, have picnics, or hike the many trails here, and in the nearby preserves. There are also concerts, public lectures, social events, and a film series.
The reason for this has to do with the foresight, and idealism, of the facilities first director. Robert Wilson was one of a number of scientists who were dismayed over the direction that much of science, particularly high energy physics, was taking. Previous to the Second World War, the scientific community had been just that --- a community. Scientists had collaborated openly, freely, and enthusiastically.
A reading of the names of many of the pioneers of nuclear physics: Cockroft, Einstein, Fermi, Curie, Czillard, Planck, Hiesenberg, gives a pretty good indication that it had been a truly international community. This would end at the outset of the war, and would be greatly impaired by the realities of the Cold War. While there had always been an element of secrecy to the designs, engineering, and crafting of certain types of weaponry, it was now to be certain segments of science itself, which were to be held in secret. Gone were the days of open collaboration, and international cooperation.
Wilson had hoped to get a bit of that old spirit back, and to foster ties with the public at large. He wished for Fermilab to be dedicated to a free and open exchange of ideas. No secret work is done here, no war work, nothing that is patented, and nothing with any real commercial value. It is not a likely terrorist target, though who can predict the imbalanced workings of the terrorist mind. So there is security here; but it is not overbearing. Visitors do not need a gate pass, and people often enter the grounds for recreation, to tour the facilities, or even to fish.
The grounds have a number of roads twisting though wooded groves, and restored prairie. One of the stories about how these roads got be the scenic drives that they are today is indicative of the type of spirit which Wilson was attempting to instill into this place. In his original concept drawing of the grounds, the roads twisted, turned, and curved their way around the grounds, passing through woods, prairie, and ponds. When the final drawings were done, by the civil engineers, the roads were laid out in efficient straight lines. Wilson scratched out the straight lines laid out by the engineers, and replaced them with another set of curved, and twisting paths for the new roads to follow. The engineer in charge protested that this was inefficient, and would require more time, material, and money to complete. It would also require a longer drive, from point to point, than a straight road. Wilson indicated that this was not important to him, and that he wanted the place to be special, even down to the roads, which he suggested should be more than just a way to get from one place to another.
The grounds also contain a buffalo farm, with a herd of buffalo, housed safely behind electrified fences. Visitors are free to look, and photograph the buffalo, which tend to congregate, unsurprisingly, near the feeding station. They are large impressive animals, and are not often seen east of the Mississippi, though they were once common as far east as New York. This is another one of Wilson's attempts to make of this place, something special.
The most visible structure, at least from a distance, is Wilson Hall. This is the administrative building, is adjacent to the auditorium, and holds the visitor center. It is also where lectures are given, and tour groups meet. In contrast to the administration buildings of most government institutions, Wilson Hall was built last. The largest structures are the accelerators. The big accelerator is a four mile ring, built underground, with a cooling pond tracing it's outline on the surface.
The opening of the more powerful accelerator, at CERN, will not mean the end for research here. There is a considerable scientific community here, as well as the substantial support of the University of Chicago. Much of the work at CERN will be directed, and even controlled, from here at Fermilab. A control room has been built, to duplicate that at CERN, unifying the facilities.
I hope to get some better pictures of the facility, sometime within the next year. Once a year, Fermi has an open house, in which the tunnels and many other normally closed sections are open to the public. This includes some section of the underground tunnels, which house the magnets and the beam tube itself. I also plan on a visit to the Feynmen Science Center.