Behind the Scenes at Fermilab


The universe remains a mystery, but scientists at Fermilab in Batavia are doing their best to unlock its secrets. Step inside this premier laboratory for particle physics and accelerator research.

The Main Injector, a 2-mile-circumference racetrack for protons, is the most powerful particle accelerator in operation at Fermilab. (Photo provided by Fermilab).

The Main Injector, a 2-mile-circumference racetrack for protons, is the most powerful particle accelerator in operation at Fermilab. (Photo provided by Fermilab).

Our universe is a mystery. We don’t know what most of it is made of; we don’t know how it all works.
But by using the largest, most complex machines in the world, scientists at Fermilab are figuring it out.

Since 1967, Fermilab has been a premier laboratory for particle physics and accelerator research. Fermilab scientists work to answer these fundamental questions about our universe and enhance humankind’s understanding of everything we see around us.

At Fermilab, located in Batavia, particle physicists attempt to expand humankind’s understanding of matter, energy, space and time. Thousands of scientists from around the world conduct this research, meaning they learn about the universe without any concrete, practical benefits in mind.

“The question I get asked more than any other is ‘Who cares?’,” says Andre Salles, Fermilab media relations manager. “Why is this kind of research important?”
But since the laboratory is federally funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, technology created at Fermilab is available to everybody.

“So, as we push forward to answer these questions about the universe, we push forward all these other areas,” Salles says. “We need the best computers, so we make the best computers. We need the best magnets, so we make the best magnets. We need something that accelerates particles, so we invent an accelerator and then we make them better and better. If you’ve ever had a PET scan (positron emission tomography), that’s an accelerator. That was developed for particle physics. We don’t come up with the material benefits of these things, but our technology is available to everybody. And that ultimately improves the world.”

Things to do at Fermilab

None of Fermilab’s experiments are scary or top-secret. The public is welcome to visit the site, learn about cutting edge research and take photographs along the way.

“There are 17 national laboratories, and we’re unique in the system because we’re the most open,” Salles says. “People can just come right in.”

Fermilab’s founding director, Robert Wilson, envisioned a laboratory that was a metaphor for the frontier of science. He chose Batavia to locate the site, partially due to its open spaces.

“The site was mostly farmland, so it was large enough to build impressive buildings yet still preserve the natural atmosphere,” Salles says.

Fermilab sprawls across 6,800 acres of land. About 1,000 acres of the site is restored prairie, while another 1,000 acres is woodland and wetland. More than 280 species of birds and 60 species of butterflies make Fermilab their home.

Oftentimes, people visit Fermilab simply to take a guided nature tour or see the herd of 28 bison that graze on the prairie.

“We’re working on the cutting edge of science, so the site looks like we’re on the edge of the frontier,” Salles says. “Bison are frontier animals, so it’s all part of the metaphor. It’s also a huge attraction for people.”

Visitors can hike in public areas and enjoy bike trails throughout the property. People with a valid fishing license are welcome to fish in Fermilab’s ponds. A photo ID is all you need to enter the site.

An on-staff ecologist ensures that Fermilab’s forest preserves are well-maintained. Additionally, volunteers help beautify the area through the nonprofit organization Fermilab Natural Areas.

“We want to be a community resource,” Salles says. “We think this is a lovely place to be, and we want this to be something for the community to enjoy. It has a side benefit of being a beautiful place to work, which helps excite scientists about coming here.”

Since Fermilab had nothing but sprawling farmland surrounding it back in the 1970s, the lab began to host an arts and lecture series to provide entertainment for scientists. Now, the series has grown into a community event.

Fermilab holds an art or lecture event every month during the school year in the Ramsey Auditorium.

“We bring in lecturers from around the world,” Salles says. “We try to give a really diverse slate of performers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be related to physics.”

Fermilab also conducts free public tours every Wednesday and open ask-a-scientist programs once a month. Visitors can tour the facility and mingle with scientists and ask any questions they might have.

“Since the scientists are normally really busy, this is a great opportunity to engage with them,” Salles says.

Fermilab and Kids

Fermilab has an active education department that works with many schools in the region. As many as 500 students visit the site every week.

“We’re strongly committed to inspiring the next generation of scientists,” says Maureen Hix, Administrative Assistant with the Fermilab Office of Education and Public Outreach. “That’s a big part of what we do – getting kids at all ages excited about science.”

The Lederman Science Education Center, named after Fermilab’s second director, is chock full of hands-on science exhibits for students in grades 5-12. Outside the center, children can play on a physics playground and “run like a proton” around the grounds.

Teachers who complete workshops can bring their students to the Lederman Center to engage in hands-on discovery.

“The goal of the center is to encourage kids to make discoveries themselves about how scientists delve into the subatomic world,” Hix says.

Teachers can also utilize materials in the Teacher Resource Center to learn how to better communicate and develop STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum more effectively.

“There’s a lot of outreach to schools and families from this building,” Hix says. “Our connection to the community is very important to us.”

Current Research: Neutrinos

At Fermilab, scientists build huge accelerators that break apart tiny particles in order for us to study them. For the past two years, Fermilab has been the flagship laboratory studying neutrinos – the most abundant matter particle in the universe.

They’re also one of the least understood particles.

“There are three types of neutrinos that make up our universe, but they don’t behave how we think they ought to,” Salles says. “They’re not supposed to have mass, they’re not supposed to change from one form to another, and yet, they do. That’s exciting for scientists.”

Neutrinos are everywhere. Trillions of them are going through our bodies at every second. Scientists suggest there may be a fourth type of neutrino waiting to be discovered.

So in order to study these tiny particles, Fermilab has an accelerator that’s about 2.5 miles long that generates the most powerful beam of neutrinos in the world.

Scientists believe neutrinos may provide the key to answering key questions about our universe.

“When neutrinos were first discovered, it was clear that they had very little mass. Actually, it seemed like they had zero mass,” says Jason St. John, Fermilab postdoctoral researcher. “However, careful experiments have shown that neutrino masses are very tiny, much smaller than any of the other matter particles, and it would be very interesting to know what they are, and why they aren’t zero.”

To further study these particles, Fermilab is preparing to collaborate in the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). A game-changing particle physics experiment, DUNE has support from more than 800 scientists in 27 countries.

“It’s going to be a truly international project for the first time here, which is incredible,” Salles says.

For DUNE, Fermilab intends to generate a beam of neutrinos that travel about 800 KM to a detector on the far side of South Dakota, where the world’s largest neutrino detector can identify the particles.

The experiment is scheduled to start operation in 2025-26.

“DUNE could help us explain why the universe today is full of matter, and not antimatter,” St. John says. “Experimentally, we see that matter and antimatter are always created together in equal amounts. You might expect that equal amounts of matter and antimatter were made in the Big Bang. But they annihilate each other when they interact, converting their mass back into energy. So why are we here? Neutrinos and antineutrinos, if they turn out to be very different, just might hold the key to the puzzle of why so much matter exists at this point in the history of the universe.”

For more information on Fermilab’s plans for the future, visit fnal.gov.

Improving the World

From the World Wide Web to medical imaging techniques, the innovative ideas of particle physics have entered the mainstream of society, along with advanced technologies.

There are more than 30,000 particle accelerators in operation around the world today. These accelerators benefit society by shrinking tumors, making better tires, spotting suspicious cargo, cleaning up dirty drinking water, helping to design drugs and, of course, discovering the building blocks of matter.
Without particle physics, our way of life would be vastly different.

“We have no idea what studying the neutrino is going to tell us, but if you asked scientists here to make a better iPhone, they wouldn’t come in to work,” Salles says. “They wouldn’t care. If you ask them to figure out how the universe works everyday, they’re here. They’re in. They’re excited. And that’s how everything big has ever been discovered.”

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