50th memories: My first day at Fermilab, my first Fermilab ID

I first came to Fermilab in January 1989, when I was a first-year student at The University of Chicago. I had just finished my first quarter of introductory honors physics, which was taught by Henry Frisch. Occasionally he had mentioned to the class that he did research at Fermilab, and there was a memorable day when he taught at 9:30 a.m. after being on shift overnight, but beyond that I knew essentially nothing about the lab. For reasons that I still don’t know, Henry offered me a job as an undergraduate researcher in his group when the course was over. On my first day on the job, he needed to find something for me to do. I was quickly spun off to graduate student Aaron Roodman, who was trying to track down the extent of the effect of a fault in the CDF trigger. This would require processing a bunch of data files at Fermilab, which thus required an account on FNALD, the VAX computer that CDF had for itself at Fermilab.

Today you can get a Fermilab computing account by filling out a web form identifying yourself, your affiliation and a Fermilab point of contact. But in 1989, you had to physically appear at Fermilab and register as a user on paper. And thus we found a day for me to drive with Henry from Hyde Park to the lab. Was there anything I needed to bring with me as a first-time visitor? “I don’t know how long we’re going to be there,” said Henry. “Maybe a change of underwear.” I was pretty sure he was kidding, but on the appointed morning, I did have a pair of underwear in my backpack, just in case.

My memories of that first visit are a bit vague. I don’t think I was expecting the modest front entrance, the wide-open prairie spaces or the bison herd. Even though I didn’t have much to do (as someone who had just gotten a computing account and didn’t really know what to do with it), I did spend the whole day there, as I had to wait to get a ride back home. (I ended up going back with Claudio Campagnari in Paul Tipton’s car; Claudio and I are currently collaborators on CMS.) While at the lab, I did attend a CDF data analysis meeting, which I didn’t understand at all, but which I later realized had one of the first presentations showing that B mesons could be constructed at CDF; this was never in the original physics program for the experiment and was a testament to the flexibility of the hadron collider program and the creativity of particle physicists.

But I remember that I returned to the dorm at the end of the day with my first Fermilab ID card, which identified me as user 5022V. I spent a lot of time that evening looking at it. There it was, a physical manifestation of my identity as a particle physicist — even though I didn’t think of myself as a particle physicist, and I couldn’t have known that this would be part of my identity for the rest of my life.

I have held a Fermilab ID card ever since — through my undergraduate years on CDF analyzing Run 0 data, as a postdoc at Johns Hopkins University and then the University of Michigan working on CDF during Run 2 of the Tevatron, and since 2004 as a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln working on DZero and then CMS. My Fermilab ID identifies me as part of a community that is now 50 years old, a community of scientists that has grown to be international, spanning all aspects of particle physics, that has pride in its achievements and contributions to society and great hope for what the future will bring. I have always been honored to be associated with Fermilab and my fellow Fermilab ID carriers — and I’ve always been comforted in the knowledge that if my ID card is found it can be dropped in any U.S. Mail Box and returned to Box 500, Batavia IL 60510, postage guaranteed.

Strictly speaking, I was not a user from 1992 to 1997, when I was a graduate student at Cornell working at the synchrotron there. But throughout that time I carried my previous Fermilab ID card in my wallet, as if it were some kind of good-luck charm. When I returned to Fermilab in 1997 and renewed my user status, no one had asked me what had become of the previous expired ID. And thus I still have it in my wallet — a memory of my younger days, of the start of my career in particle physics and of our country’s flagship particle physics laboratory.