Jonckheere a jack-of-all-trades

Alan Jonckheere playing Santa with Pono Casey. Photo: Courtesy Brendan Casey

Alan Jonckheere sums up his 40-year career at Fermilab as looking for “the bump,” that elusive crest in data plots that signals a potential unexpected discovery.

If there is one thing that physicists love to do, according to Jonckheere, who retired this past December, it’s “to find something totally unexpected.”

During his decades of research on the DZero experiment, Jonckheere devoted himself to searching for “the bump.” He was party to several key discoveries in particle physics, including the top quark, a missing building block of matter. He also helped the collaboration produce some of the most stringent parameters on particles and their interactions. But those often ground-breaking analyses were predicted by theorists and past data.

“It was really fun and exciting to be here during that period and work with Leon (Lederman),” but alas, “it [the top quark] was expected.”

What ended up becoming unexpected was the variety of different jobs Jonchkeere would take on to keep the experiment running smoothly. He became known as a jack-of-all-trades, said Herb Greenlee, who joined the DZero experiment in 1990.

“Alan’s contributions go beyond his official jobs and titles,” Greenlee said. In addition to working as the online software manager, software release manager, data quality convener and within the authorship and election committees, Jonckheere “did whatever was needed…often without a lot of visibility or credit.”

It was common to see people lined up outside Jonckheere’s office, requesting all sorts of help, he said.

Sometimes those requests included toys, games and maybe even a pony. True to his jack-of-all-trades nature, each December Jonckheere donned a red suit and served as Santa Claus for the NALWO playgroup.

Jonckheere and his wife of 41 years are building their retirement home on a lake in western Illinois. They plan to spend time with their children and grandchildren, boating and water skiing. But, apparently, 40 years of searching for "the bump” are not enough. Jonckheere plans to work with the laboratory as a guest scientist, telecommuting and popping in to the laboratory often.

“I’m retiring from the laboratory, but not the experiment,” he said.

This, for him, is to be expected.

Rita Hoover