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In December 1966 the 6,800-acre site called "Weston," in the Chicago suburbs of northern Illinois, won the national competition for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's newest facility, a 200-GeV (billion electron volt) particle accelerator that would become the National Accelerator Laboratory. This frontier research center built in America's heartland was to become, for the last quarter of the twentieth Century and into the new millennium, the highest energy hadron accelerator in the world.

The site competition had been a heated one attempting to reconcile physics interests on both coasts and in the Midwest while navigating the problems of planning to build a physics facility for the future in a difficult period of American history characterized by an unpopular war with its related budget problems and social unrest. In addition to difficult but necessary political cooperation, the project would be a challenge with its unprecedented scale and demands on technology. A new organization, Universities Research Association, Inc. (URA), was formed to manage the new facility according to a new approach, as a "truly national laboratory." Physicist Norman Ramsey of Harvard University, skilled in diplomacy and astute in the political sphere, presided over URA in its early years.

A strong leader was needed to create the Laboratory, and in early 1967 URA offered Robert Rathbun Wilson the position of director. Wilson was an experimental physicist and a specialist in accelerator design and construction. He had a distinguished career at Berkeley, Princeton, Los Alamos, Harvard, and Cornell and was respected by the scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission and the academic leaders of URA.

Wilson selected Edwin L. Goldwasser, an experienced experimental physicist from the University of Illinois, to be his deputy director. The two worked effectively with Ramsey, guiding all aspects of federal funding, local support, development, design, construction, and management of the laboratory, as well as shaping its research program. The first offices were established in rented space in Oak Brook, Illinois, on June 15, 1967, while the land to be donated by the state of Illinois was obtained from its former owners, some fifty farming families and the residents of Weston.

Wilson recruited a corps of explorers for his frontier laboratory and launched an aggressive construction program to deliver the machine that would lead American high-energy physics into a new realm of human comprehension of nature. Having moved from Oak Brook to the Weston site in late 1968, Wilson imparted his aesthetic sense of design, feeling "a laboratory needn't be ugly to be inexpensive." Implementing design innovations and applying the latest understanding of accelerator physics to the four miles of magnets in the underground tunnel called the Main Ring, Wilson drove the machine to completion ahead of schedule, beyond its original design energy of 200 to 400 GeV, with more experimental areas in which to conduct research, and the project still came in under the authorized budget of $250 million. The United States Atomic Energy Commission was pleased and appreciative to have the highest-energy accelerator in the world when it was officially completed and successfully operated at design energy on March 1, 1972.

Wilson had been given assurance from President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Atomic Energy Commission that the Laboratory would be considered "the National Accelerator Laboratory," not only in name but also in reality, and it was given priority in funding and development. Wilson therefore expected first-rank recognition for the Laboratory and stressed an enlightened vision in all areas, among them physics research, respect for human rights, preservation of the environment, ethical conduct, an aesthetic sense of the whole of the Laboratory, and an idealistic approach to all aspects of research and life at his "Science City" in order to "produce a small acceleration to society." (Wilson 1968).

In 1970, physicists from around the world submitted eighty-two proposals to conduct particle physics research at the new facility. Each physicist would bring support and students from his or her university if granted the new accelerator's beamtime for proposed experiments. A carefully coordinated schedule was developed to allow maximum use of the accelerator and its beamlines by its many users. Supremely complex plans of construction, utilities, materials, and access were needed to maintain the operation of the physics research program. By 1972, the Main Ring was ready.

In May 1974, NAL was dedicated and renamed the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in dedication to Enrico Fermi, the Italian winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics. Fermi's legacy in experimental and theoretical physics, which extended from Pisa and Rome to Columbia University and the University of Chicago to Los Alamos, was bestowed upon the Laboratory. Fermi's widow, Laura, proudly participated in the dedication ceremony. The identity of Fermilab derives from this historic moment.

Research of a comprehensive scope commenced in the fixed-target experimental areas with ambitious forays into understanding, among other topics, exotic new particle interactions, total scattering cross-section measurements, neutral currents, lepton production, and into searching for quarks. Wilson considered the research areas temporary and deliberately left them unfinished and adaptable for each experiment installed. He designed attractive architectural features for all areas, but the interiors were Spartan; some were without sufficient heating and bathrooms. Conditions were frontierlike: cold, damp, and unpleasant, but the research was exciting. A 15-foot bubble chamber was installed in the Neutrino Area to reveal and detect neutral currents. The Meson Area included several experiments surveying particle production. In the Proton Area one lepton production experiment led to a major discovery: in 1970, Columbia University's Leon M. Lederman started an experiment that evolved over the next seven years into a better equipped, more reliably performing one, which in the summer of 1977 yielded the discovery of the bottom quark.

Work on extending the frontier reach of the accelerator continued under Wilson in hopes of developing an Energy Doubler, a machine implementing the untapped technology of superconductivity. This advance would enable Fermilab's accelerators to achieve one trillion electron volts (TeV). Research for this future plan was not officially authorized by the Department of Energy; nevertheless it proceeded under Wilson. But in 1976, under pressure, Wilson returned to the federal treasury the surplus of original construction money from the Main Ring instead of being allowed to use it to exploit Fermilab's capability with the Energy Doubler.

Fermilab's funding had deteriorated by 1978. Expressing dismay that original promises of priority had not been kept and that Fermilab had not received sufficient recognition for its achievements for the DOE and the U.S. taxpayer, Wilson resigned. The Department of Energy felt it had to maintain a balance of support for its facilities and therefore had not approved Wilson's urgent plea to support the Energy Doubler.

Wilson's second Deputy Director, Philip V. Livdahl, served as Acting Director of Fermilab in mid-1978, and URA announced the selection of Lederman as Director Designate in the fall. A decision was made in November 1978, at the "Armistice Day Shootout," to pursue authorized research and development funding for and construction of the Energy Doubler. Lederman arrived in June 1979, and funding was promised in July. Lederman dispatched a group of physicists from the former Doubler Division to work with the Accelerator Division to build the Doubler. Success was essential, not only to save the Lab from its foundering status, but also to strengthen its position as a viable competitor on the international particle physics frontier.

Lederman's decision launched the Doubler era at Fermilab, marked by years of difficulties with ever-changing designs of magnets and cryostats, new systems, frequent tests, multiple reviews, very hard work, sleepless nights, and dead ends, but finally it produced results. By March 1983 the last superconducting magnet was installed into the Energy Doubler and by February 16, 1984, the 800 GeV experimental program operated successfully. With its higher performance in the TeV range, the Doubler became a critical component in the new Tevatron.

In 1983, the Tevatron's fixed-target experiments were upgraded. After the antiproton source was completed in 1985, the colliding proton and antiproton beams program demonstrated its potential for producing millions of collisions at unprecedented energies that could be observed by huge, complex detectors. These collisions produced many events for analysis by the teams of experimenters from two very large competing collaborations at Fermilab: CDF and DZero. Their search for the top quark began as the Tevatron achieved higher energies and improved luminosity. Computing power was recognized as crucial, and the Advanced Computer Project was developed to coordinate experimental data with its analysis.

An effort to enrich math and science education was launched by Fermilab in the early 1980s. Initially seen as a way to bring the physics of Fermilab to the broader population, including students and teachers from Northern Illinois, its programs have become international successes. Fermilab is acknowledged as a model of laboratory outreach for improving science literacy around the world.

A dazzling distraction captured the attention of physicists around the world in 1982: the Higgs boson. What was it, and where was it? A machine capable of exploiting still-higher energy domains was thought necessary to search for the Higgs, the mechanism responsible for the mass of elementary particles. Lederman was involved with international physics facility planners who spoke of a Very Big Accelerator (VBA) with high enough energy to search for the Higgs. He, like Wilson, thought of Fermilab as the natural site for such a forefront machine. The Tevatron's infrastructure was there, and Fermilab's credibility was now sound. Plans developed in the Department of Energy between 1983 and 1988 for a new machine to probe the frontiers of 20 TeV, called the Superconducting Super Collider. Fermilab scientists involved with magnet and accelerator technology hoped to win the next-generation machine.

In October 1988 Lederman received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his 1962 Brookhaven experiment that distinguished two different types of neutrinos. One month later Waxahachie, Texas, was named by the Department of Energy as the site for the Superconducting Super Collider, suggesting the possible end of Fermilab.

John Peoples Jr. became the third director of Fermilab in 1989. Peoples's work on the Tevatron's Antiproton Source had led to the successful colliding beams program. His support of the computing project that contributed to the early growth of the World Wide Web was critical for communication and collaboration in Fermilab's expanding international experiments. Transfer of this information technology from basic research to the global marketplace has been rapid and revolutionary. Peoples streamlined Fermilab's experimental program while supporting innovative experimental physics ideas, such as the Pierre Auger Project, the Cold Dark Matter Search (CDMS), KTeV, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and Neutrinos at the Main Injector (NuMI). He endorsed further theoretical work on the early universe, supersymmetry, and superstrings.

In 1993, Congress canceled the Super Collider's funding. Peoples was asked to direct its shutdown. Fermilab would remain the highest-energy accelerator for another generation.

In 1995 nearly 1,000 physicists from around the world working on CDF and DZero announced the discovery of the top quark at Fermilab. News of the discovery went out over the World Wide Web at the same time as to the traditional media. The discovery of the top quark strengthened physicists' confidence in the Standard Model, the descriptive means of explaining the interactions of the elementary particles in terms of the fundamental forces of nature. This discovery was possible only at Fermilab because of its state-ofthe-art technology and resources assembled for the search. The Tevatron, upgraded between 1993 and 1999 and enhanced with the Main Injector, remains the highest-energy accelerator in the world. Peoples stepped down as director in 1999.

At the start of the new millennium, Michael S. Witherell became Fermilab's fourth director. Still managed by URA for the U.S. Department of Energy, Fermilab employs over 2,000 people from northern Illinois and provides research facilities for thousands of physicists from around the world. The Laboratory has an annual budget of $300 million. Confidently pursuing discoveries in inner and outer space with care for its people and its environment, Fermilab is strategically positioned at the frontier of science and technology.

See also:Benefits of Particle Physics to Society; Funding of Particle Physics; Wilson, Robert R.


Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. <http://www.fnal.gov/projects/history/index.html>.

Giacomelli, G.; Greene, A. F.; and Sanford, J. R. "A Survey of the Fermilab Research Program." Physics Reports19C (4), 1–20 (1975).

Lederman, L. M. "The Upsilon Particle." Scientific American239 (4), 72–80 (1978).

Wilson, R. R. "Particles, Accelerators and Society." American Journal of Physics36 , 490–95 (1968).

Adrienne W. Kolb

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