Fermilab is Still Alive After CERN

While it may no longer be the world's premier atom smasher, interesting physics is still going on at Fermilab, and the neutrino might just be ready to give up its secrets.

Get close to what was once the premier atom smasher in the world, the Tevatron at Fermilab outside of Chicago, and you'll see ... bison. That's right, grazing on the grass of the accelerator's ring are a herd of bison that were introduced in 1969 by the lab's first director, Robert Wilson.


First 2018 Fermilab bison
First Fermilab 2018 bison Source: DOE

The bison keep the grass on top of the Tevatron's 3.9 mile (6.3 km) in circumference circular accelerator ring to a manageable height. Until the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) went online in 2008, the Tevatron was the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, producing proton-proton collisions with energies of up to 1.96 trillion electron volts (TeV).

Wilson Hall at Fermilab
Wilson Hall at Fermilab Source: WMGoBuffs/Wikimedia Commons

While the LHC at the European Organization for Nuclear Research facility outside of Geneva, Switzerland (CERN) might be the world's premier atom smasher, Fermilab is the United States' premier particle physics laboratory. It sits on 6,800 acres in Batavia, Illinois, southwest of Chicago, and the lab is managed for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science by the Fermi Research Alliance LLC, which is a partnership of the University of Chicago and the Universities Research Association Inc., a consortium of 89 research universities.

Fermilab Is Named For Enrico Fermi

Fermilab employs 1,750 scientists and engineers from all over the world, and it collaborates with over 50 countries on physics experiments. Fermilab is named for Enrico Fermi (1901 – 1954) who was the creator of the world's first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1, which was located in a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago's Stagg Field.

In December 1938 Fermi had won the Nobel Prize in Physics at the age of 37 for his "demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons." Fermi had also discovered the transuranium elements.

Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi Source: DOE

Following the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, instead of returning home to Italy, Fermi, his wife Laura, and their two children traveled to New York City where they applied for permanent residency. This was due to to Italy's fascist racial laws because Laura, and by extension his two children, were Jewish.


Chicago Pile-1 was the world's first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, and it went critical on December 2, 1942. Drafted into the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Fermi headed F Division, which worked on Edward Teller's thermonuclear "Super" hydrogen bomb. At the first test of a nuclear weapon, the Trinity Test on July 16, 1945 at Los Alamos, Fermi dropped scraps of paper during the explosion, and was able to accurately estimate the bomb's yield.

The Discoverer of the Neutrino and His Namesake

While CERN might be winning in the TeV stakes, Fermilab has staked out front runner status in research into neutrinos, those ubiquitous but hard-to-catch particles that were discovered jointly by Fermi and Wolfgang Pauli.

The Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) is currently under construction. It will have a near detector at Fermilab, and a far detector at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota. An intense beam of trillions of neutrinos will be fired from Fermilab 1,300 kilometers (810 mi) to a vessel containing 40 kilotons of liquid argon located 1.5 kilometers (4,900 ft) underground. The neutrinos will travel through the Earth, reaching a depth of 30 kilometers (19 mi) near the mid-point.


Scientists hope to:
* Search for neutrinos beyond the currently-known three
* Determine the ordering of neutrino masses
* Investigate neutrino oscillations to test CP violation in the lepton sector
* Study supernovae and the formation of neutron stars and black holes
* Search for proton decay.

In 2017, the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced a £65M investment in DUNE, and prototype detectors are being constructed and tested at CERN.

The Night Shift

Fermilab is the U.S. headquarters for the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at CERN, which is a 2,900-member international collaboration. Thanks to Fermilab's LHC Remote Operations Center, CMS scientists 4,000 miles away in Cessy, France can skip the night shift because physicists and students at Fermilab take detector monitoring shifts. They stay in contact with both CERN and the German lab DESY. Fermilab is also home to one of 11 Tier-1 computing centers that process data for the CMS experiment.


Before the Tevatron was shut down in 2011, in 1995 it discovered of the top quark, one of the six fundamental building blocks of matter that include the up/down, charm/strange, and top/bottom quarks. And, on September 3, 2008, a new particle was discovered at Fermilab, the bottom Omega baryon, which is made up of two strange quarks and a bottom quark. It helped to complete the "periodic table of the baryons" and offered insight into how quarks form matter.

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