At Fermilab, National Accelerator is our middle name

Craig Hogan

Craig Hogan, head of the Center for Particle Astrophysics, wrote this column.

Everyone knows that Fermilab builds accelerators, fabulous machines that boost elementary particles to almost the speed of light. But Fermilab accelerates more than just particles: It propels the advancement of our nation, and our technical civilization, into the future.

Fermilab’s basic mission is to understand the nature of matter, energy, space and time. Since everything is made of matter moving in space-time, startling inventions often spring from innovations in physics. Surprising technologies emerge all the time from newly invented ways of measuring and manipulating matter, forces and data.

The sooner we get the knowledge, the sooner we get the inventions. The faster we learn new physics, the faster humanity advances. That’s acceleration: It moves everything faster.

The most direct acceleration happens when physicists take their techniques out into the world and build all kinds of new things, not just physics experiments. Around the lab, we see this happening all the time in the careers of our close colleagues.

A couple of years ago I stood on a festively flower-festooned Stockholm stage, dressed in an elegant Swedish tuxedo, with an experimental team that celebrated the award of the Nobel prize in physics to two of our team members, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt. The team had worked together in the 1990s to discover a unique kind of acceleration: the speeding up of the cosmic expansion, sometimes called “dark energy.” Our two youngest team members had been physics graduate students at the time of the discovery; at our Nobel reunion feast 13 years later, they talked with excitement about their jobs at a Seattle biotech company, where they apply techniques they learned in experimental astrophysics to develop machines that study close details of living systems.

Last year, a brilliant postdoc from MIT who had helped us create Fermilab’s Holometer experiment surprised everyone on that team when he chose not to become a physics professor at the University of Chicago but decided instead to join Elon Musk’s SpaceX company and develop new ways of going to space. He’s already developed a ranging system that the Dragon space capsule uses to dock with the International Space Station.

And just this summer, a senior Fermilab physicist, James Volk, left the lab and our Holometer team, not to retire, but to join a private biomedical company. He now develops magnets for accelerator beams—not for physics research, but for new kinds of cancer treatment.

These close-up stories show the substantial contributions that our colleagues make beyond basic physics research. They create things that did not exist before and make them happen better and sooner because of their physics training, experience and creative insight—just one of many ways that Fermilab accelerates our nation.