If you've never spent the day at the world's highest-energy particle accelerator, you don't know what you've been missing. Home to the Top Quark and the NuMI Neutrino Beam, Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory, in Batavia, Illinois is fun for geeks and non-geeks alike, thanks to community outreach activities dedicated to science, art and ecology.
The drive into Fermilab is akin to entering a forest preserve, rather than a world-renowned physics laboratory. Since its commissioning in 1967, Fermilab has been dedicated not just to particle physics, but also to aesthetic beauty and attention to the environment. For 30 years, volunteers have been working to restore and preserve the natural prairie surrounding the high-tech facility. At Fermilab, they're almost as serious about the prairie as they are about physics.
Public outreach is a high priority at Fermilab, with several programs designed for non-physicists. And even if you're not at all interested in physics, Fermilab probably has something for you. Fermilab's public areas were closed intermittently after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Starting in 2005, Fermilab has eased many of these restrictions, leaving most of the site's recreational areas waiting to be explored.
A security guard at the main entrance will need to see your ID, so make sure everyone in your group has their papers in order. You'll be given a map of the area with public areas clearly marked. The map also lists off-limits sites with mysterious names, like Site 67, Neutrino Area and Anti-Proton Source. Alas, the public areas bear less interesting names, like "Buffalo Farm," "Dog Training Area" and "Prairie Trail." No matter how tempting, don't venture into the restricted areas.
Outdoor Art, Architecture, and Wildlife
Fermilab's bike path is paved and, in true prairie style, flat, making for a relatively easy ride. Park your car at the Lederman Science Center and enjoy your bike ride past tall grass, native flowers, a herd of about 45 bison and Fermilab's high-powered Tevatron particle accelerator. Fermilab's bike trail might not be challenging, but it is certainly unique. The path, while not in total disrepair, has seen better days, so inline skaters may be in for a bumpy ride.
Although the Tevatron is underground, and therefore not visible from the public areas, there's plenty to see. Art-lovers will want to check out several sculptures that dot the landscape, including "Broken Symmetry," which straddles the road at the Pine Street entrance. Architecture fans can marvel at the late-modern architecture of Wilson Hall and the Feynman Computing Center (Wilson Hall is open to the public, but Feynman is not).
Indoor Stuff for Geeks in Training
Near the main entrance sits the Lederman Science Center, a highly interactive collection of physics displays aimed at teaching K-12 students about what goes on at Fermilab. Though the center's target demographic is school children, it is equally informative for anyone with a limited understanding of particle physics. And admit it, you're no expert. This high-tech playground will give you hands-on lessons about top quarks, neutrino beams and particle collision. And even if all that is still over your head, at least you'll be able to play with some pretty expensive equipment.
If you feel silly hanging out with the Boy Scouts and school groups at the Lederman Science Center, head over to Wilson Hall, which houses a small exhibit geared more toward adults. The exhibit changes periodically: Past topics have covered quantum physics, prairie ecology and medical applications of particle physics.
If the physics thing is still not doing it for you, you can at least admire Wilson Hall's stunning architecture. From the atrium, you can see all the way to the top of the 16-story building and glimpse a bit of the second floor art gallery. The gallery is closed to the public except before and after special events. It has housed exhibits by Fermilab employees, as well as local and nationally recognized artists.
In addition to academic colloquia, Fermilab sponsors an Arts and Lecture Series for the public. With programs approximately once a month, the Art Series presents a variety of performances in Ramsey Auditorium. Past performances have included chamber music, folk music and international dance troupes. The Lecture Series presents six to eight lectures a year on scientific topics.
On the first Sunday of every month, Fermilab's Ask a Scientist program invites the public for a behind-the-scenes tour and presentation by a scientist. The topic varies by month, and it is aimed at adults with limited physics knowledge. Children under 10 are not allowed, and you have to call ahead to reserve your spot. The Ask a Scientist program is the best (and maybe only) way to see Fermilab's off-limits areas like the Main Control Room and the Linear Accelerator.
For the less academic, Fermilab's International Film Series hosts a movie night approximately once a month. The Film Series meets in Ramsey Auditorium to watch independent and art films, with refreshments and discussion afterwards. Tickets are $4 for the public.
What you can't get in Chicago: It's not every day that you can bike past a high-speed particle accelerator and a herd of bison.
Don't miss: Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall's concrete towers loom over the surrounding prairie. The imposing building was inspired by a Gothic Cathedral in Beauvais, France.
Stop along the way: Exit I-88 at Farnsworth (north) and you'll pass Chicago Premium Outlets, where you can pick up ice cream at the Cold Stone Creamery and a discounted handbag at the Kate Spade outlet.
Hours: Fermilab's indoor areas are open 8:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. The grounds are open 8 a.m.-6 p.m October-April, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. May-September.
Directions: Take 88 West. Exit at Farnsworth. Head North on Farnsworth. Farnsworth turns into Kirk. Turn Right on Pine. Read on at Fnal.gov.