Credit: Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

In the beginning, there was heat and density, and then a rapid expansion—a big bang. The universe grew violently, according to the theory, in infinitesimal fractions of seconds. The mess of motion and collision yielded the smallest particles; matter was created in greater amounts than antimatter. Over time, atomic fortuity produced galaxies, and us.

That’s the short version—the gloss. Physicists have been trying to fill in the details about the fundamental makeup of the universe since at least 1909, when Ernest Rutherford, who’s known as the father of nuclear physics, fired charged particles at a sheet of gold foil and confirmed the existence of the atomic nucleus. In the intervening century, projects like Rutherford’s have grown in size and ambition: physicists hope that by re-creating conditions not seen in the universe since its birth, they’ll better understand it. For the last 40 years, those primordial conditions have been the quarry of particle physicists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory—Fermilab—in Batavia.

At first glance it’s serene at Fermi, a respite amid suburban sprawl—the lab reintroduced native prairie and installed herds of bison on its 6,800-acre campus. Below the surface, though, physicists study the universe with the help of a four-mile-around particle accelerator called the Tevatron, which they inject with protons and antiprotons. Employing more than 1,000 superconducting magnets about 25 feet underground, the machine spins beams of the particles toward each other at a clip approaching the speed of light, while two detectors study the resulting collisions.

Fermilab log noting an early collision event
Fermilab log noting an early collision eventCredit: Fermilab

Because some particles exist so briefly—the top quark, for instance, an elementary particle, lasts only 10-25 to 10-26 seconds, too fleeting for the detectors to read—scientists look at what they decay into. Bruce Chrisman, Fermi’s chief operating officer, gives the example of a Swiss watch: “You’ve got a hammer, which is our accelerator. You’ve got a Swiss watch, which is a proton in our case. And those are your tools, and you want to find out how the Swiss watch works, so you take the hammer, and you hit the Swiss watch. Pieces fly out—they’re bent, and so forth—but you do it often enough, a few of them aren’t bent, and if you’re clever enough, eventually you figure out how to put the Swiss watch back together again and figure out how it works.”

Among the discoveries made here were the top and bottom quarks—particles thought to be some of the most elemental in the universe, the particles that make other particles possible. When Fermi turned on the Tevatron in 1983, some protested that the collisions it produced might bring about the end of the world—these were big-bang conditions that scientists were trying to create, after all.

The Tevatron ends now, though, not with a big bang but with a whimper of austerity. Though the machine’s current run was scheduled only through 2011, scientists hoped for a three-year extension. Last October a Department of Energy advisory panel urged that it keep running if sufficient financial resources could be scared up—an extended run would require an additional $35 million a year, the panel noted. But the DOE, which funds the lab, affirmed in January that the Tevatron would be shut down as planned. In a response to the panel’s recommendations, W.F. Brinkman, director of the DOE’s Office of Science, agreed that the machine still had work to do.

“Unfortunately,” Brinkman wrote, “the current budgetary climate is very challenging and additional funding has not been identified.” The distinction of being the world’s largest particle accelerator—for decades the Tevatron’s—now belongs to the Large Hadron Collider, a machine in Europe that will generate seven times as much energy. The Tevatron goes offline Friday at 2 PM.

About 450 people lived in Weston, a tiny farming community in DuPage County, when it was dissolved in 1969 to make way for the construction of Fermilab. Weston had just wanted an economic boost; when the town lobbied to be the site of a new particle physics lab, it didn’t know that it would be supplanted.

Houses that were once scattered across thousands of acres were hauled by truck to a centralized location, called Fermilab village, that now provides lodging for students and scientists.
Houses that were once scattered across thousands of acres were hauled by truck to a centralized location, called Fermilab village, that now provides lodging for students and scientists.Credit: Fermilab

A couple years earlier, Weston village president Arthur Theriault had heard that the Atomic Energy Commission was looking for a home for its new particle accelerator. At the time Theriault was “thinking about an industrial park” as a tool for development, he later told the Tribune. A traditional industrial park this wasn’t, but Theriault thought that the accelerator lab might bring the town the economic growth it’d been seeking—that a “science city” could form with the lab as its basis. Earlier schemes had failed: ambitious plans by developer William G. Riley to grow the town by 11,000 homes and one enormous shopping mall fell through because of objections from DuPage County, and because Riley lacked the financing.

In December 1966 the Atomic Energy Commission chose Weston for the new lab. Weston had ample space for housing scientists, the University of Chicago and other colleges weren’t far away, and the town was just a 30-minute drive from O’Hare. The science city wouldn’t be Weston, though—it would swallow Weston. The AEC’s plans had the lab displacing the town entirely, with the state using eminent domain to capture the land and transfer ownership to the lab.

The village, including president Theriault, reversed itself and mounted a campaign, which by early 1968 had turned to threats of lawsuits, to block the accelerator. The grievance was less with the AEC than with the state’s department of business and economic development, which villagers felt should offer greater assistance in moving the town, intact as a municipality, to land next to the lab grounds. It was also with DuPage County, which denied the villagers an adjacent plot of 150 acres they’d tried to annex. “We like our community and we want to keep it together but the state has not expressed any willingness to help us,” Theriault told the Trib in May 1968.

Appeals were unsuccessful. Glenn T. Seaborg, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, broke ground in December 1968 for what was then called the National Accelerator Laboratory. (The lab was renamed in 1974 for physicist Enrico Fermi, who created the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago in 1942.) Nearly a year after the groundbreaking, land that held 85 homes and 66 farms had been taken over by the state of Illinois and given to Fermilab. Some of the residents bought out by the state were profiled in the Trib. “Sure, we hate to leave this home,” said “Mrs. Wolsfeld,” wife of “Robert.” “It’s so old and elegant. We’ll never again have a house with a sitting room and an old fashioned parlor.” Her husband said that he worked 138 acres of “the best farm land in Illinois. It’s hard to leave but I guess we have to make room for progress.”

“There were some families who were very upset” with being relocated by the state, says Ronald Anderson, who was in college when the state bought his family’s land in 1968. “Some of the farmers didn’t think they were being treated fairly. They didn’t want to move, but if they had to move, they wanted top dollar for what they were selling.” He says, though, that the dictate to move was a “godsend” to his mother. Her husband had died shortly before the announcement that the lab would be built atop Weston, and “her whole life had changed anyway,” Anderson says. “I suppose she could have kept the farm, but she probably would have sold it in any case.”

James T. Volk, a scientist who maintains and upgrades the Tevatron, says there wasn’t yet much development when he moved to the area in 1975. “If you wanted to find a restaurant or someplace to eat, there was a McDonald’s in West Chicago. It was really dark!” The population of Batavia, where Fermi’s main entrance is located (and which gives the lab its mailing address), was 7,000 then; it’s now 26,000. DuPage County filled up by the late 80s and early 90s, Volk says, “and then it just kept going west into Kane County,” which includes Batavia. Fermi straddles the border between the two counties.

The lab now sits atop—and beneath—a peculiar and surpassingly beautiful campus. More than a thousand acres of Fermi’s property is restored native prairie, cut through with trails and bike paths. The main administrative building, Wilson Hall, is a sloping structure modeled after a Gothic cathedral in Beauvais, France. Except for Wilson Hall, buildings are low to the ground, and painted in blue, orange, and red per the wish of Fermi’s founding director, Robert Wilson, who wanted the structures to stand out against their natural surroundings. Wilson also designed many of the sculptures that decorate the campus, including an elegant, craning three-legged monument that stands at the gate to exemplify the physics concept of “broken symmetry”—it’s symmetrical from some angles, assymmetrical from others.

Suburbs grew up around the lab; the area wouldn’t stay farmland for long. Today the land is studded with subdivisions; it’s home to a number of industries; and spokesperson Tona Kunz points out that Fermilab is in the center of a “high-tech science core,” comprising hospitals and research universities, that runs down I-88 toward Chicago. Though she moved away, Ronald Anderson’s mother was happy that the Fermi campus itself stayed relatively undeveloped. “I think as the years went on, she was very pleased that Fermilab was here, and there weren’t 84 more developments or strip malls,” he says. “Because this would’ve looked just like any other town further east.”

Modern particle physics is based on a theory called the standard model, which accounts for atomic interactions of three types: electromagnetic, strong, and weak. (The fourth known interaction, gravity, hasn’t been incorporated.) The theory was developed over the last century, when scientists began looking more closely at the proton, the neutron, and the electron—once thought to be the universe’s smallest particles.

Credit: Fermilab

When they started bombarding these particles, though, and breaking them down into their constituent parts, physicists began discovering an expanding roster of smaller, more elementary particles that made up protons and neutrons. The discoveries unnerved them. “When I was a graduate student in the 60s,” Bruce Chrisman says, “it was just called a zoo of particles. It seemed like every few weeks a new particle was cropping up. And that’s unsatisfactory.” Physicists, he says, are the “ultimate reductionists in science.

“All of a sudden, what looked like a relatively well-ordered system blossomed into all these huge particles,” Chrisman says. “So the belief was there has to be some underlying principles that we don’t understand that will allow us to go down a level.” After discovering that the hundreds of particles cropping up weren’t discrete building blocks, but actually combinations of finite numbers of subparticles—quarks, leptons, and bosons—theorists developed the standard model. The propositions it comprises made prior discoveries coherent and gave scientists a framework for predicting the existence of particles not yet found—predictions which have been borne out to an uncanny degree. Scientists at Fermilab discovered the top and bottom quarks, for instance, after those particles had been anticipated by the standard model.

Gravity’s unaccountability aside, there’s another, more elemental problem with the model, and it’s particle physics’ most elusive mystery. The model theorizes that elementary particles have no inherent mass—they’re equal, in other words—though physicists know some are more massive than others. And they know that mass has to come from somewhere. The question of where is as existential as any in science, because it’s the same as, Where do we come from?

“It’s easy. You just turn the power off.” —Fermi scientist Rob Roser, on shutting down the Tevatron

One proposed answer has attracted both breathless media attention and grandiose cliches. Theorists believe that the Higgs boson—call it the holy grail, or the “god particle”—works somehow to endow other particles with their respective masses as they interact with it. It’s thought that the Higgs is part of a universal field, the Higgs field, across which all particles traverse. Nothing has yet been validated, but as with other missing links, there are occasional rumored sightings of the Higgs. A bump in the data collected in 2007 by DZero, one of two detectors attached to the Tevatron, set off chatter that the Higgs had been located. And earlier this year, researchers at the other detector—CDF— found another anomaly, which they cautioned could have been a statistical fluctuation.

Caution is indeed advised: a year before the 1977 discovery of the bottom quark, a team led by future Fermilab director (and future Nobel Prize recipient) Leon Lederman announced preliminary evidence supporting the discovery of a new subatomic particle, designated “Upsilon.” After further research revealed the discovery to be in error, the incident was called “Oops-Leon.” Nowadays the bar for surety is higher, measured by standard deviations, or “sigmas,” to indicate the chance that a result was more than a statistical fluctuation. Five-sigma is the level at which scientists claim a discovery; the evidence supporting the particle sighted this spring was initially described as three-sigma and then grew to nearly five, though its significance is still being analyzed.

In any event, the particle didn’t match what was predicted by the standard model to be the Higgs, leaving open the possibility that it could signify a discovery even more important: a new force of nature, perhaps, or a different version of the Higgs than scientists expected. If any of these possibilities is confirmed, it could mark a revision in the standard model itself.

Which wouldn’t be an unanticipated, or even an unwelcome, development. Physicists are eager to change the model despite the fact that, to date, it’s considered the most successful theory of, well, everything. A 2007 Slate article described it as “the most accurate theory ever developed, in any field,” then went on to complain that the standard model is “infuriatingly silent on the Big Questions.” Without the Higgs, the theory doesn’t make much sense, because it has no way to account for mass. It’s not the only theory out there—string theory is a competitor—but so far it’s the only one with predictions that have been verified by empirical evidence.

Even if further experiments confirm the standard model’s preeminence, it’s due for some changes. “Yes, we have a model that works, that’s wonderful,” Chrisman says. “We go do experiments and it keeps working. But when we really get excited is if it doesn’t work—when we find a breakdown.” And discoveries over the last couple decades, he says, “give scientists the belief that in our field we’re on the brink of something new, because we’re finding lots of things that don’t quite fit our models.”

The CDF detector rolling out of the collision hall after discovering the top quark.
The CDF detector rolling out of the collision hall after discovering the top quark.Credit: Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

Though nobody knows where it will be found—if it’s found at all—scientists at both the Large Hadron Collider and the Tevatron think that the search for the Higgs won’t last much longer. LHC physicists say their machine will either find the boson or disprove its existence within the next two years, and workers at Fermi’s detectors recently announced that they’ve narrowed the range of mass they think the particle exists within. They’ll continue to crunch the detectors’ data after the collider goes dark.

“When the Tevatron shuts down September 30,” spokesperson Tona Kunz says, “it will not be the end of the Tevatron.”

“Or Fermilab,” adds Rob Roser, who works on the CDF detector. We’re meeting just outside the main CDF control room, and Roser, small and hyperactive, has welcomed me here with: “This is CDF. It’s big science!”

Even with the larger detector doing higher-energy work—bigger science—overseas, Fermi’s employees will take years to analyze the information collected by each detector—data compiled over the course of the last decade, during which the collider has run more or less constantly, stopping only to reload with new particles and for equipment repairs. Not only that, it’s been essentially the same experiment for ten years, with scientists continuing to refine their definition of what they’re seeking.

Which is why in July the lab could announce not that it had found the Higgs, but that it had narrowed the scope of where it might be: because the last ten years have been a sort of process of elimination—of figuring out where it’s not. In August, LHC scientists made a similar announcement. “What happens,” says Roser, “is after one year of running, you’re looking at things that happen once every 10,000 times. After two years of running, one in a million, one in a billion, one in a trillion, right? You keep peeling back the skin of the onion. So what we’re looking at now with this kind of data sample is something we didn’t have access to three, four, five years ago, because we didn’t have the statistical precision to look at it.”

Though work on the detectors’ data will continue, scientists at Fermilab are already looking to the LHC, which circles underneath the France-Switzerland border. A remote operations center, just off the lobby of Fermilab’s Wilson Hall, allows physicists to monitor real-time data from the LHC’s Compact Muon Solenoid detector, on which the United States is a partner.

Roser says that once he’s finished with his work on the Tevatron, he wants to go to Europe. “There’s lots of things to do here. But you know, you like the Red Sox, you want to go to Fenway. You don’t want to go watch something else.”

The lab hopes to open up parts of the Tevatron’s old detectors to the public as an exhibit, though whatever useful parts can be identified will be stripped out. “What they’ll do is they’ll gut it just like a car, and they’ll reuse the wiring,” Kunz says. “Some of the coolest small experiments we have are just guys who sort of wandered around and found pieces that they could put together and then it was like, You know what? I could do this with it. It’s very MacGyver-like, you know?”

I observe to Roser that the shuttering of the machine must be another sort of experiment—that it’s not every day that scientists need to learn how to take offline the world’s second-largest particle accelerator.

“No, it’s easy,” he says. The machinery, which is held at 4 degrees Kelvin, needs to be brought up to a safe temperature. But it’s not rocket science. “You just turn the power off.”

About 130 people gathered on a cloudy day in early May in Fermilab Village, a small cluster of buildings on the east side of the lab’s campus that serve as living quarters for the lab’s scientists. The houses here were once scattered across the thousands of acres that now make up the lab grounds; they were moved to this patch of land, literally carted by truck, once the lab took possession of them.

Former farmers of the land that became Fermilab pose for pictures at an annual reunion.
Former farmers of the land that became Fermilab pose for pictures at an annual reunion.Credit: Sam Worley

Ronald Anderson’s family lived in one of the few farmhouses that still sits in its original location, across the street from Kuhn Barn, the site of this gathering. He and others, former farmers of the land and their descendants, were here for the Farmers’ Picnic, an annual reunion organized by Fermilab’s history committee. Anderson said coming back to the reunion is “sort of like visiting a museum of your past.” A couple years ago he drove by his old house and saw its current inhabitants having a picnic on the lawn. “And a part of me, irrationally, thought, We should stop, because we must know these people. They’re at our house.” Anderson was here this year without his mother Jeanette—she died in December at age 100.

The reunion was the idea of the Fermilab Site History Committee and lab archivist Adrienne Kolb. Committee member Sue Populorum said that as they learned more about the site, the historians became interested in its former inhabitants. So she rang up local families with familiar names—Geltz, Brummel, Feldott—and asked if they’d lived on the land. The first reunion was 13 years ago; this year’s was the biggest yet. Attendees reminisced against a typical backdrop: slides of old photos projected against the wall, a potluck of grocery-store deli fare on long rectangular tables, a handsome book of genealogy called Remembrance of Things Past that the committee put together to pass out. A few physicists, including Bruce Chrisman, sat together at a table near the front of the room. Chrisman now works in Wilson Hall, at the other end of the campus, but he said his first office was in the kitchen in one of the houses here. Founding director Robert Wilson used to ring a bell to call scientists to meetings.

White-haired John Malone, 71, was attending the reunion for the first time. One of the houses moved was his. “You want to see something sad,” Malone said, referring to a videotape of his old house being hauled by truck to its new location. “They filmed it, and on the film they’re taking the house across that big open field into the woods—quite a ways—and then they put music to it. Cripes. Make you want to cry.” Malone showed me a framed photo of children in a one-room country schoolhouse he attended in, he thinks, 1945. He named all the names. He was in the picture, along with two of his brothers and one of his sisters. Most everybody in the photo has died.

“Quite a few of your family is deceased,” observed Bernie Brucher, 86. He’s a distant relative of Malone’s. They’d lost touch before today, when Malone was surprised to hear Brucher’s name mentioned by one of the reunion speakers. Brucher called them “shirttail relations,” but he had to say it three times in order to be understood—his speech was quiet, a bit labored. “Old Bernie there, I could hardly hear what he’s saying half the time,” Malone said later.

Brucher’s family raised cattle, pigs, chickens, and grain here from 1942, when Bernie graduated from high school, until 1949. He interjected random observations while I talked to John Malone. “It’s amazing all the people you can see when you come to a place like this,” he said, looking around. “That’s the whole trouble—when someone moves away, you lose ’em. It’s a shame.” Even old acquaintances are hard to recognize after so long, he said.

Malone agreed. “But,” he added, “it don’t take long to get acquainted with good old farm people.”

There was some chatter about Fermi’s future—Ronald Anderson said he hopes that if anything happens to the lab’s funding, “God forbid,” the land will be turned into a public preserve—but mostly the subject was the history shared by the reunion attendees. Bob Geltz, here with his father Marion, said that his family farmed the largest area that the lab took over, 513 acres. “I always called it the windswept 500,” he said. Everybody gathered for a group picture in front of the barn, and the reunion-goers began to trickle out—either to leave or to tour the grounds by car. They could exit through the east gate or drive back west across the campus, down Batavia Road, where farms used to be. The rain just barely held off. Somebody said that bison calves had been born on the lab’s grounds, but they were just out of sight of the inhabited areas. Nobody knew how many there were.

To learn about life after particle acceleration, see our sidebar, What’s next for Fermilab?