The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it), but "That's funny...."
Close Encounters of the Physics Kind
Close encounters of the physics kind abound at Fermilab's Leon M. Lederman Science Education Center. The surprise? Thanks to the innovative science education programs available at the Center, learning about physics is really fun.
Opened in the spring of 1992, the Center has the mission of encouraging young people's interests in the fields of science, math, and technology. This goal is met through activities such as laboratory tours, science classes, and camps that last anywhere from a few hours to a week, and might involve looking at insects through a microscope, or touring the Fermilab campus on a bicycle.
Other offerings include environmental activities, art classes, family days, and teacher workshops. Also available is the year-round Science Adventures program that holds special events for children, families, and teachers.
Many of the classes and camps are geared towards elementary and middle school students. One of Fermilab's most popular programs for high school students is Saturday Morning Physics. These weekly classes feature Fermilab's high-energy physicists discussing science's hottest topics. Fermilab also invites gifted minority students to participate in a six-week summer apprentice program. These students have the opportunity to work on a research project alongside a Fermilab scientist, and to attend classes at the Lab.
The Center offers such a variety of activities that there's sure to be something to please everyone. To find out more about the activities offered at the Center, call (630) 840-8258.
If colliding particles is the game Fermilab accelerator physicists play, then the detector physicists are the scorekeepers, recording each collision and its results.
Particle detectors, some of the most complicated pieces of equipment at Fermilab, function as cameras during particle collisions.
"They're not only like a camera, but like a camera that decides when to take a picture," explained D0 physicist Don Lincoln. There are far too many collisions to record and analyze them all, so custom computers look for collisions with characteristics that the physicists have deemed "interesting." Data from those events are saved, and the rest are thrown away.
It is these cameras that make it possible to analyze data and learn about the subatomic particles.
Fermilab is home to two such particle detectors, called CDF (Collider Detector at Fermilab) and D0 (D-Zero). They both have similar functions, but they excel at different things. "The group across the ring keeps us honest." said Lincoln, part of the D0 team. He explained that each detector team works independently of each other, but that they check each other's work and verify each other's results. This ensures accuracy when results are published. Plus, they enjoy some friendly competition.
CDF and D0 were the two detectors that made headlines in 1995 with the discovery of the top quark. This was a long and complicated process, requiring years of planning and preparation. Even after the experiment was complete and the data were collected, it took years of work to analyze the pictures and numbers.
Computers played an important role in this process. Scientists were able to ask the computer to look for certain kinds of "events," by inputting a particular description of what they thought would happen in an interesting collision. The computer, in Lincoln's words, "decides to take a picture" when it sees something that matches the inputted description.
During Run I (1992-1995, the first time the Tevatron was used for collision experiments), each experiment recorded approximately fifteen million events but only found about forty collisions apiece that may have produced a top quark.
Because there is such a small percentage of interesting events, physicists who are involved in the preparation for Run II of the Tevatron are very excited, because they expect to gather ten to twenty times more data. Instead of thirty million events, they will have at least three hundred million to look at. This dramatically increases the odds of learning new information about subatomic particles and their behavior during collisions.