In its sedative normalcy, the Chicago suburban sprawl would seem an unlikely setting for the noble quest of solving the basic laws of nature. But just up Farnsworth Avenue from the outlet mall and the minor league ballpark lies the 6,800-acre campus of Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory, where scientists have spent the last 40 years simulating the birth of our universe to better understand the laws of matter and energy. What looks like just another stretch of undeveloped land waiting to be paved over and turned into a strip mall actually hides the Tevatron particle accelerator, a 4-mile long ring that can bring protons and antiprotons almost to the speed of light before slamming them into each other, revealing the smallest building blocks of the universe.
It’s pretty intoxicating stuff, and even the scientist who has overseen most of Fermilab’s rich scientific history remains excited about it. At age 88, Leon Lederman, director emeritus of the laboratory (and a professor emeritus at UChicago), didn’t sound like his enthusiasm for high-energy particle physics has diminished as he spoke to the University of Chicago Medical Center Radiology department on Monday. The official mission of Fermilab is to “advance the understanding of the fundamental nature of matter and energy by providing leadership and resources for qualified researchers to conduct basic research at the frontiers of high energy physics and related disciplines.” But Lederman’s short version was even better: “at Fermilab, we concentrate on how the world works.”
Though Lederman’s talk was called “Imaging the ‘God Particle'” – referencing his 1993 book on the hunt for the Higgs Boson, the missing piece of the Standard Model of Physics – he stuck to mainly to Fermilab basics. Sitting within the crowd and switching out faded transparencies on an overhead projector, Lederman’s talk had an old-school feel, but it fit the timelessness of the research. Rather than a data presentation, it was something like a slideshow recap of a vacation – “How I Spent My Summer at Fermilab.” Lederman laced his talk with the dry humor on display in his book (a recommended read for anyone looking for a quick education in particle physics), and with simple explanations of a very complicated field.
“There are head-on collisions, particles come off, they are detected, recorded, and in this way we learn something about the forces that moderate the behavior of these particles,” said Lederman, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics.
The vintage look of Lederman’s photos belied the fact that important work is still underway at Fermilab, despite the opening last year of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Particles still fly around the Tevatron ring seven days a week (as you can learn on the accelerator’s twitter feed), and scientists believe there are still important things to learn even though the LHC is now top dog in the high-energy physics race.
“We collaborate and we also compete” said Lederman of the CERN-Fermilab relationship. “It’s a nice friendly competition, in which we secretly try to get more data than they do.”
The radiologists in the audience had reason to thank Lederman and his peers, as the discoveries made at physics laboratories such as Fermilab have made a tremendous impact on health care. Imaging techniques such as MRIs, CT scans, and ultrasounds, radiation therapy for cancer and heart disease, and the use of lasers for surgery and photodynamic therapy all resulted from advances first made in the field of physics. Even Fermilab itself has a medical component, Lederman said, with a neutron therapy facility for treating certain types of tumors. But beyond the practical applications of the research, Lederman made a case for continuing to fund Fermilab for the pure thrill of answering the most important questions science can answer, in the humble surroundings of Batavia, Illinois.
“It’s moderately expensive work, yet it’s very fruitful, because it’s this kind of research that tells us really how the world works,” Lederman said.