50th memories: The missing block

Where’d you go, missing block? Or were you ever there? (Do you see it?)

As you walk down the stairs from the main floor of Wilson Hall (cafeteria area) to the auditorium lobby, look up to the near edge of the wood block ceiling. Slightly west of the center line is a “hole” where a wooden block supposedly should be. I have often observed this hole since the ceiling was finished about 1973 and can attest that a block has been missing ever since. (Over time a few other distant pieces have gotten lost but should not be confused with this one.)

For me this has raised two issues:

  1. Was this just a mistake in assembling the structure and never corrected or
  2. Was this done on purpose to destroy any symmetry that might exist in this ceiling?

Obviously, the first issue is trivial except that it gives a plausible alternative to the second issue which is certainly more intriguing.

Fermilab founding director Bob Wilson appreciated the concept of “Broken Symmetry.” He designed a sculpture with this name, and it stands at the Pine Street entrance to the laboratory. He also gave a conference dinner talk, “Symmetry in Art and Science.” In it he discussed an artist dilemma of making something too perfect: “Only the gods are perfect.” Therefore ancient Asian artists would leave a small flaw in their work, he said. Did Wilson do the same here? I guess we will never know but the possibility is interesting.

Or, is it an omen of missing pieces in our physics knowledge?

Note: The wood for this ceiling and supposedly throughout the auditorium is walnut. It was gotten from several walnut trees that were cut down by vandals during the very early days of NAL. They were soon after captured by the FBI and the wood recovered. See the Fermilab history website.

Charles Schmidt is a Fermilab scientist emeritus.