How to save a life: Preserving the physics of John Linsley

This photo of John Linsley is from the Fermilab Archive. It was taken in 1977 and most likey depicts Linsley near the Volcano Ranch experiment in New Mexico, where Linsley observed the first ultra-high energy cosmic ray.

On his death bed, cosmic ray pioneer John Linsley made it clear that he wanted to leave a legacy.

“He kept repeating that he didn’t want his stuff thrown into a dumpster,” said Linsley’s daughter-in-law Joanna Quargnali-Linsley, who took care of him his last six weeks. “But Linsley never liked institutions, so there was no obvious place to donate his papers.”

After Linsley’s death in September 2002, Quargnali-Linsley spent the next several months looking for an organization that could preserve Linsley’s lifework. Former Fermilab director John Peoples and Ruth Pordes of the Computing Division supported its disposition at Fermilab.

“Linsley’s research represents the pre-history of the Pierre Auger Observatory, and part of Fermilab’s focus is the cosmic frontier. It made sense for us to take on his collection,” said Adrienne Kolb, Fermilab’s historian, archivist and the leader of this project. Nobel laureate Jim Cronin and Alan Watson, both former Auger co-spokespersons, endorsed the preservation of the collection in the Fermilab Archives.

In late 2004, 26 boxes filled with binders, notebooks and files documenting Linsley’s colorful life arrived on the Fermilab Archives’ doorstep.

For a few years, after a summer student reboxed and cataloged it, Linsley’s collection sat unused in the Archives. But when Eun-Joo Sein Ahn, a postdoc at the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics, learned about its existence, she asked Kolb to bring the collection into the public eye.

“John Linsley is a big name in cosmic-ray research,” Ahn said. “He was a pioneer of large-scale extensive air-shower experiments and, in the early 1960s, discovered the highest-energy cosmic rays.”

Last summer, Kolb, Ahn, and Mary Jo Lyke prepared a proposal with the help of Dave Carlson and Frank Cesarano from the Business Services Section and Ellie Arroyo from Particle Physics Division. In December, a $10,000 grant from the American Institute of Physics was awarded to Fermilab for further cataloging and description of the collection. Archivist Valerie Higgins is processing the collection and creating an electronic finding aid using the current professional archival standards. Higgins and Jean Reising of BSS/IRD will join forces to add the finding aid to the Fermilab History & Archives website and share it with the AIP’s Niels Bohr Library and Archives and the Center for the History of Physics.

“Archives projects like these are important because they allow researchers to see how theories and ideas developed,” Higgins said. “I’m making an online finding aid for this collection that will let anyone who is interested in Linsley’s life and research easily search through the documents we have.”

This project is expected to be completed in the next six months and will help to preserve and make accessible Linsley’s contributions to cosmic-ray research to scholars and researchers around the world. Kolb and Reising hope to follow Higgins’ lead to update the other collections in the Fermilab Archives to illuminate the treasures within.

Sarah Charley