Sunday, September 30, 2012

Fermilab, from the inside out

Last weekend, KLK and I enjoyed a most wonderful "backstage tour" on the second bi-annual Photowalk at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab. The first fifty photographers to sign up (the tour filled up within a day or two of being announced) were divided into groups of 10, each group bussed in rotation to five different facilities and invited to photograph the equipment and talk with waiting scientists to their heart's content. My previous post on Fermilab focused on the great natural grounds of this international scientific resource in Batavia, Illinois, about 40 minutes west of Chicago. Fermilab is one of about 20 national laboratories and technology centers around the country funded by U.S. Department of Energy contracts as well as the grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation supporting teams of individual investigators. Fermilab made the news a couple of years ago when the DoE announced it would not renew funding for its largest high-energy particle accelerator, the Tevatron, as its utility has been eclipsed by the opening of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva. However, Fermilab continues to thrive as a center of particle physics experimentation (as of this writing, pending continuation of support in the FY 2013 federal budget, of course) and remains an important locus of international collaboration. For example, researcher groups at the LHC pipe their data to Fermilab's Grid Computing Center to be crunched:
Here's a peep at what goes on at the back of just one of the many large banks of computers within the Grid Computing Center, the combined activity of which is impressively loud and emits sufficient heat that it is not all that comfortable for humans in there:
All of this is connected by miles of spaghetti-like green cable in an open overhead conduit:
One accelerator beneath the Fermilab grounds creates anti-particles by smashing protons together at inconceivable speeds and detecting what new matter bounces out of the subatomic cataclysms:
A truly massive collision detector, where the existence of the target particles is sensed and recorded, is required even for such infinitesimally small subatomic matter:
There is not much at Fermilab that is simple: visible manifestations of the math, physics, programming, and engineering are staggering. I love the big red light at the top of this apparatus in case something goes wrong - like maybe the machines suddenly decide to rise up and stage a revolt?
Of course, you can't just go to Wal-Mart to get parts. The fabrication shop is enormous, and provides glimpses into the inner workings of machinery, the purpose of which is well beyond my imagining. It is endlessly sculptural:
Some elements have personality to spare. This guy, a component in the New Muon Lab (still under development) with his bright green eyes and long brass nose, might be a futuristic relation to Thomas the Tank Engine.
But sometimes, what goes on is laughably simple. Here we see documentation that science is nothing more than duct tape. What it's holding together isn't clear, but together it and its fellow pieces certainly have an arty look:
Or, maybe all it takes to do science is aluminum foil:
Or the ever-useful Saran Wrap, albeit it the biggest piece of plastic wrap you've ever seen:
And, completely familiar and mundane components, which I would bet are nonetheless extremely carefully milled to exacting requirements:
In the absence of an adequate understanding or vocabulary to properly describe all we saw, but in the knowledge that it is important and profound, let me also say that what goes on inside and outside of the halls (and tunnels) of Fermilab is visually delicious and intellectually thrilling. Here are the excited Photowalk participants assembled on the steps of the architecturally-distinguished Wilson Hall,ready to be awed by what was to come (Reidar Hahn photo):

Turn on your sound, watch and hear the grid computers at work and imagine the heat:

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