Happy 50th birthday, Fermilab

Fermilab is named for famed physicist Enrico Fermi.

Fermilab: You know lab is short for laboratory, but why Fermilab?

Enrico Fermi was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize for using neutrons to make dozens of new radioactive atomic nuclei. After receiving the prize from the King of Sweden, he and his Jewish wife came straight to America to escape the fascist regime in Italy. Fermi soon became a professor at the University of Chicago.

It was the dawn of the atomic age, with the promise of nuclear energy and the threat of powerful bombs. Fermi led a team to build the first nuclear reactor in a university squash court. On Dec. 2, 1942, it released 0.5 watts, less than the power from a candle, but this was the world’s first controlled nuclear power! It was later briefly eased up to 200 watts.

Fermi and Robert Wilson, Fermilab’s founder, both participated in the Manhattan project, which ended World War II less than three years later.

Nuclear reactors now provide more than half of the electricity in Illinois, without emitting greenhouse gases.

After the war, physicists developed proton accelerators to understand matter and forces on a subnuclear scale. Rival proposals to build a giant machine on the east or west coasts lost out to a proposal by Bob Wilson for a cheaper design at a new laboratory in the Midwest. The National Accelerator Laboratory, NAL, was thus born in 1967 in Batavia, Illinois.

In 1974, 20 years after Fermi’s death, the laboratory was dedicated as the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in his honor. Fermilab’s research has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or nuclear energy; it is about exploring the fundamental nature of matter, energy, forces, space and time.

For 25 years, until 2011, Fermilab had the most powerful “microscope” in the world, in a circular tunnel four miles around, smashing protons and antiprotons into each other, creating mysterious particles thousands of times even smaller. Three fundamental particles were discovered there: the top and bottom quarks and a third kind of neutrino. These, and all such particles of matter, are called fermions.

Physicists come from all over the world to collaborate, and nothing is secret. You too may come to hear about and see cool science stuff, as well as Wilson’s legacies: the bison, prairie restoration, art and architecture.

Come especially on Sept. 23 to our free, family-friendly Open House event.

This is a version of an article that originally appeared in Positively Naperville.