Monday, March 7, 2011

Two of a Kind Deaths

1967 and Wisconsin lost the race. The bid for the United States National Accelerator Laboratory, more commonly known as Fermilab, went to Illinois. Construction of the 3.9 mile in circumference proton smashing particle accelerator marked the opening of one door and the closing of another.


MURA-The Midwestern University Research Association disbands and leaves a legacy that would continue until present day. The Synchrotron Radiation Center-a successor to Tantalus.

MURA's mission after the 1950's was to bring a high-energy physics presence to the midwest. Through a consortium of around 20 universities the physicists were able to land Fermilab near Chicago. This marked the end of MURA as an organized group. Many of the MURA physicists, based in Madison, left in numbers to build our nation's biggest particle accelerator.

One of the early MURA tinkerings with particle accelerators in Madison 1957

A few stayed behind and started a new breed of accelerators and through several serendipitous events, they too marked a place in history. Known as Tantalus, the physicists created the first light producing accelerator dedicated for researchers using light to study matter in 1968.

Particle Collider vs. Light Source

The word particle accelerator has come to take on a dual personality. While the machines that we've heard of such as CERN or Fermilab do accelerate particles, they are of a different and extravagant breed of machines.

Accelerators such as CERN whirl protons in opposite directions around a race-track near the speed of light. The scientists and builders aim to witness a cosmic collision of forces. Why?

If you wanted to know how a watch works, you could smash two of them together and see what parts and pieces come flying out. The same is true for small constituent parts of matter, such as protons. These efforts attempts to scratch our itch to better understand what our world is really made of.

A microscopic colossal collision. Two protons smashing head-on and their resultant splatter

Light sources are of a more practical breed. Instead of smashing, they whirl particles around the racetrack. Not nearly as exciting as an epic collision but quite useful. Every time something like an electron goes around a corner at fast speeds, it emits light. This light is used to study matter, like a microscope. Scroll down a few posts until you see the ipod. Most of those technologies came from light source research.

'til Death do them 'part

Fermilab-the proton smasher and Tantalus-the electron whirling, light-producing extraordinaire were born at the same time. Coincidentally, they are set both set for shutdown this year.

Given the recent political atmosphere and governmental budgetary belt tightening, some science is taking a hit. Fermilab and Tantalus' successor, the Synchrotron Radiation Center have been set for termination as a result of their old age--so says their funding agencies.

Despite the bleak outlook, there is something very poetic about the turn of events and their timeliness.


  1. Interesting that they are closing, Eric! Good journalism there.
    I remember CERN collider in Geneva raised fears of an apocalyptic generation of black holes. People can't get enough of this stuff. It is fun to think about, and the physicists are just making stuff up as they go along (I'm beginning to realize Steven Hawking is full of shit). I've been to Fermilab, super cool, I hope I can make it to Geneva!


  2. I remember reading about CERN and particle collisions in the book Angels and Demons (very good read, by the way ;).
    Fiction aside, I thought this was an interesting post, and I had no idea such groundbreaking research was so close to home!

  3. I knew very little about these centers before reading your post. Does either offer tours to the public? I would be interested in visiting before they're lost.

  4. Glad to see you writing on this subject, Eric. I think not enough people know what we're losing as these centers close.