50th memories: Liquid nitrogen in the library

This is not the liquid-nitrogen tank that Rob and John encountered in that early-1990s lunch time walk. Photo: Reidar Hahn

I think I can tell this now because I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired. Around a year after I joined Fermilab, in the spring of 1992 or 1993, I got into the habit of a lunch time walk on the Ring Road with John Isenhour, who had come here a year or two earlier. John’s job was to manage the library VAX (yes, the library had its own little DEC VAX at fnlib.fnal.gov). In warm weather it was nice to go outside for a few minutes and get a little sun and fresh air.

On one of those days we were just getting started when John saw a big white tanker trailer used for liquid-nitrogen parked next to the A-1 service building on Main Ring Road. It had an open spigot and it was dumping liquid nitrogen on the ground. No one else was around and we had no idea why that was being done, but John put on a pair of gloves he happened to have and found an empty metal coffee can lying on the ground. Holding it under the tank tap by the top edge, he managed to get a quart of liquid nitrogen.

With it boiling away, we walked back into the high-rise. I had some initial misgivings about this, but those evaporated with the nitrogen while we talked of hammering nails with bananas and all the other fun stuff you can do with a very cold liquid. We got on a west side elevator and rode it to the third floor and walked out into the middle of the library, where we proceeded to play around with what was left. By then it was all gone, after only a few minutes, and before we (fortunately) could do much with it.

What mildly amazes me now is how at the time, this seemed like a typical Fermilab thing to do — have fun with unusual states of matter if given the opportunity. I have not been here 50 years, so I can’t be certain about this, but I bet this was the only time a cryogenic liquid was in the Fermilab Library.