Featured Scientist - Chuck Ankenbrandt
Chuck Ankenbrandt is our featured scientist this quarter. Chuck
has been a Fermilab physicist since 1973 and is a member of the
Accelerator Division. He is also heavily involved in educational
activities at the Lab. As the father of five children ranging
in age from 33 to 8 and the stepfather of four more, Chuck has
had a lot of personal educational experience, too!
Chuck, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Would
you start by telling us about your current activities at Fermilab?
There are three main things now. I'm Experimental Coordinator
for the Accelerator Division. I'm designing a high-intensity Fermilab
Booster and I'm working with the Education Office on a variety
of physics-related activities.
What do you do as Experimental Coordinator?
Well, as you know, the Research Division is primarily responsible
for interacting with most of the high-energy physics experiments
here. However, there are a few experiments which occupy Accelerator
Division "turf" that I ride herd on. At present there
are three active Tevatron Collider experiments (not counting the
big ones at CDF and D0) as well as three in the Antiproton Accumulator.
It's mostly a bureaucratic job, so it's not much fun. But somebody's
got to do it, and it has to be someone who understands Accelerator
Theory Department. More recently I led a team that produced a
conceptual design of a proton synchrotron for cancer therapy.
Why are you working on a high-intensity Booster design?
It's a productivity issue. The output of the high-energy physics
program depends on the number of protons that we can accelerate.
We have a chain of accelerators that run in series, so the weakest
link limits performance. Historically the Lab has always concentrated
a lot of resources on whatever machine is perceived to be the
bottleneck. (Oops, that's a mixed metaphor; chains don't have
bottlenecks!) Anyway, this strategy has paid off with steady improvements
in performance. When I started working on accelerators, I joined
the Booster group because that machine was the limiting factor.
We were able to make some big improvements back then, and the
recent Linac Upgrade really helped to enhance the performance
of the Booster, so now the Main Ring is the worst bottleneck.
The Antiproton Source also seems to be running near saturation.
However, in a few years the Main Injector will have replaced the
Main Ring, and the Recycler will have alleviated the limitations
of the Antiproton Source. Then the present Booster will be the
bottleneck once again; we will have come full-circle!
You've been here a long time. What are some of the other
things you've done?
I was hired into the Physics Department, and my first service
job was to provide small computer support to a couple of the early
experiments. Meanwhile I also pursued my own research interests
by taking part in some of the early high-energy experiments. Around
1975 Rol Johnson convinced me to help him make the Booster work
better. Before I knew what hit me, Rol was off to CERN for a year
and I was the new group leader. On his way out the door, he gave
me some advice; he said to line up a successor because I wouldn't
want to do that job forever. Sure enough, a couple of years later
I became Main Ring group leader for awhile, then worked on Antiproton
Source design, then helped commission the Tevatron. Subsequently
I did a stint as head of the Accelerator Theory Department. More
recently I led a team that produced a conceptual design of a proton
synchrotron for cancer therapy.
Would you tell us about some of your activities with the
When the Lederman Science Center was in the planning stages,
I helped brainstorm the hands-on exhibits; currently we're working
to complete the room that covers some of the conceptual basis
of particle physics and the connections to cosmology. Also, for
the last two summers, I've been overseeing the hands-on physics
activity for the Topics in Modern Physics Institute, which brings
high school physics teachers to Fermilab for a brief introduction
to high-energy physics. They build and use cosmic-ray telescopes;
in the process, they learn a little about the techniques and ideas
of high-energy physics.
Can you tell us a little about your own early education
in math and science?
I went to Catholic schools in the Cleveland are In grade
school, I was good at math; I honestly don't remember being exposed
to any science at all! I was a good student, eager to please,
but boredom was a big problem because there were no special programs
for smart kids. The high school was a lot better because it had
competitive admissions and ability-tracked classes. But still,
I had only two science courses, chemistry and physics, in high
school and didn't learn calculus until I was a sophomore in college.
The high school physics course was conventional, but still I found
it so interesting that I decided at age 17 to become a physicist.
As a parent, what are your impressions of the educational
I agree with the consensus that nationally the K-12 education
system needs a lot of improvement, especially in math and science.
However, the fact that kids are coming out poorly educated is
not entirely the fault of the schools; the problems of society
are a big factor. Most teachers deserve our admiration for trying
hard to do a difficult job well. We're fortunate here in the western
suburbs to have pretty good public schools. The big suburban high
schools have so many honors courses and remedial level courses
that they basically track the students according to ability. That's
beneficial because it allows teachers to match the material and
the rate of presentation to the abilities of the students.
How would you change the way science is taught?
Research has shown that in order for kids to really assimilate
science, to make it their own, they have to be active participants
in the job of constructing their own understanding of nature.
The education reformers are trying hard to move in that direction,
with more hands-on activities, more active participation, more
inquiry, but the system is huge, and like all huge systems, it
has a lot of inerti To show kids that they can understand how
nature works by some method other than reading books and trusting
authorities would instill a lot of confidence and be very liberating
and motivational. But I sense a reluctance on the part of some
teachers to relinquish the authoritarian role, even for the duration
of a science class. The reluctance of some teachers to encourage
free-form inquiry springs, no doubt, from a lack of confidence
resulting from inadequate background in science. At the elementary
level, it sometimes seems that science is equated with environmentalism.
The way environmentalism is taught reminds me of my religious
training. (Laughs.) "This is what you should believe, and
this is how you should act." There are saints (recyclers)
and sinners (polluters). In this context, hands-on science means
carrying your trash to the recycling bin. A cynic might surmise
that environmentalism is emphasized because it's safer than controversial
topics like evolution and the origins of the universe.
What can parents do to enhance the education of their children?
So many things! There are the basics, like keeping them healthy
and happy, and providing an environment conducive to mental activities,
and encouraging them to show up on time and well-prepared. It's
important for children to experience the joy of understanding,
so they don't try to learn everything by rote memory. And it's
very important for a kid to experience success, to know how good
success feels and what it takes to attain it, even if it's not
initially in academics. For example, I've talked with Alex and
Amy, my grade-school children, about how it took a lot of work
to become good swimmers, but the effort was kind of enjoyable,
and winning races is a lot of fun; and I've tried to convince
them that succeeding in school is a similar process.
Sometimes we tend to forget that being a good student is so much
more than just being smart. A woman I know, a good student, went
back to graduate school as a mature adult to get a master's degree
in education. She had to take some introductory survey courses
such as psychology in order to make up deficiencies. She found
it remarkable that many of her fellow students, mostly underclassmen,
lacked the basic tools for academic success. For example, the
broad hints that the professors gave about what would be on the
next exam went over their heads; they failed to turn in homework;
they didn't seem to know any of the tricks that make it easier
to memorize things. She concluded that, at least at that level,
common-sense competent behavior was almost sufficient to insure
good grades. The recent best-seller called Emotional Intelligence
has a lot to say that's relevant here.