Science seldom proceeds in the straightforward, logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles.
Former Fermilab director Dr. John Peoples and current director Dr. Mike Witherell meet to discuss their roles in the most prestigious and powerful particle physics research laboratory in the world.
Quark Quest: The Mission Statement of Fermilab says: "Fermilab advances the understanding of the fundamental nature of matter and energy by providing leadership and resources for qualified researchers to conduct basic research at the frontiers of high energy physics." How is the director active in this task?
DR. WITHERELL: The missionthe jobof Fermilab is to provide the scientific facilities that researchers need to do research that is at the level of the best in the world. There are physicists all over the country, but to do their research they need large accelerators, accelerators that are so large that no university can build one. So, starting about thirty years ago, we've pooled the resources of people so they could both build bigger accelerators, and also do their research.
Quark Quest: Basically, what is the job description of the Director?
DR. WITHERELL: I have to manage the laboratory so that we do the things we've committed to do with the researchers. I have to work with the high-energy physics community to come up with experiments and proposals that can be done and which are good science. And I have to go to our funders in Washington, D.C. (The Department of Energy and Congress) and convince them that these proposals are worth funding.
DR. PEOPLES: Also, because Fermilab is one of the biggest employers in Kane County, there's an obligation to try to reach out and keep the community informed of what we're up to.
Quark Quest: What misconceptions do you think exist about Fermilab?
DR. WITHERELL: People in the community assume that we do weapons research here. Even though we are funded by the Department of Energy (in the same way weapons research facilities are), we do only basic academic research.
Quark Quest: What projects are currently in the works?
DR. WITHERELL: Right now the biggest thing going on is Run II, for the collider experiments. The Main Injector has made it possible to look into the higher energy frontier, to see more. Those experiments are coming together now, and will be running for about six years or so after they begin. The second big project is where we shoot neutrinos [small, almost massless particles] from this laboratory up to Minnesota underground. And, as always, we're working hard to see what to do in the future.
Quark Quest: What is your favorite part of the job?
DR. WITHERELL: I like most working with people who think about what we should be doing in the future and what are the possible directions the field of particle physics should go, and thinking about science and how to get there. I've been working on these problemsabout our futurefor quite a long time, and now I'm in a position where I can actually do something about it.
DR. PEOPLES: Basically, you get to drive the bus. You're in charge, and it's exciting.
Quark Quest: What kind of person best suits this job?
DR. WITHERELL: The short answer? "Someone who walks on water" would be perfect. We laugh, but this is an extraordinarily demanding job which has all these fronts to it, everything from public relations to being in charge of technical things, to thinking about what we're going to do next. And all you can do is get the closest to that in a real person that is possible.
DR. PEOPLES: Because this is a scientific lab, you have to have a really good intuitive understanding of particle physics. You have to want to work with people, because you don't do anything yourself; you get other people to do it. We don't pay people enormous amounts of money, no stock optionsthe only thing is the opportunity to discover something nobody else has.
Quark Quest: What do you expect to happen in the next ten years at Fermilab?
DR. WITHERELL: I think the clearest thing is that in the new run, which we call Run II, we'll make new discoveries and see new things we've never seen before. We have a picture of the way nature works now, and we realize something's missing. We hope that we get that piece, that clue, that thing that's missing, in the next run.
Quark Quest: The first director, Robert Wilson, still has a very tangible presence here at Fermilab. Is there anything you've read either by or about him that has inspired you?
DR. PEOPLES: I had a lot of interactions with Bob [Dr. Wilson]. The thing that still strikes me, even leaving out the science, is that this is an incredibly attractive laboratory. He truly had a clear vision of what he wanted. And outreach: He understood how necessary it is. Even though he wasn't an architect, he had a hand in everything as all of this was being built. The other thing was his concept of how you carried out accelerator research and development. He really got the lab going: that's really his contribution. So, in that sense, he's still here.
DR. WITHERELL: There's one story that I will always remember. When Wilson was in front of a Senate or House Committee, they would often ask him "What will your laboratory do to improve the defense of this country?" And basically what he said was, "What this lab does is make this country worth defending."
|Did You Know??||What he's looking for:|
|It often takes several years and hundreds of scientists working together to do an experiment at Fermilab.|
First, someone has to have an idea for research to do. If the question can be answered using Fermilab's high energy accelerators, then that scientist works to assemble a group to support the idea. If they are able to convince the director of the lab, and if they can get money to fund the project, then they're on their way to a new discovery.
|"It's got to be good science," explained Dr. Witherell. The group has to be well-organized. It also helps to have a variety of skills among the scientists.|
Finally, the director has to be sure that the experiment can be done compatibly with all of the other things currently happening at Fermilab.
"When it all comes together, it means we have a good project, scientists who want to do it, and money to do it with. That's the goal."