Fermilab is a name well known to all physicists. When I was an astrophysics undergraduate student at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa in the mid-to-late 1970s, I remember that several members of our large high energy physics group made frequent trips to Fermilab, including Bill Kernan and Alex Firestone. At the time, it was the best place in the world to do high energy physics. What is high energy physics? Basically, it is the creation and study of new and normally unseen elementary particles formed by colliding subatomic particles into one another at very high velocities (kinetic energies).
On Sunday, March 4, a group of us from the Iowa County Astronomers met up at Fermilab for an afternoon tour of this amazing facility. We were all grateful that John Heasley had organized the tour, and that Lynda Schweikert photo-documented our visit.
Our afternoon began with an engaging talk by Jim Annis, Senior Scientist with the Experimental Astrophysics Group: “Kilonova-2017: The birth of multi-messenger astronomy using gravitational waves, x-rays, optical, infrared and radio waves to see and hear neutron stars”. Here he is showing a computer simulation of an orbiting pair of neutron stars coalescing, an event first observed by the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors on 17 August 2017 (GW170817), and subsequently studied across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
One of the amazing factinos I remember from his talk: even though neutrinos were not directly detected from the GW170817 event, the matter in colliding neutron stars is so dense that neutrinos push material outwards in what is called a neutrino wind. Yes, these are the same neutrinos that could pass through a light year of solid lead and only have a 50% chance of being absorbed or deflected, and pass through your body at the rate of 100 trillion every second with nary a notice.
Even though CERN has now eclipsed Fermilab as the world’s highest-energy particle physics laboratory, Fermilab is making a new name for itself as the world’s premier facility for producing and studying neutrinos. This is a fitting tribute to Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)—after whom Fermilab is named—as Fermi coined (or at least popularized) the term “neutrino” for these elusive particles in July 1932.
Basic research is so important to the advancement of human knowledge, and funding it generally requires public/government funding because practical benefits are often years or decades away; therefore such work is seldom taken up by businesses interested in short term profit. However, as our tour guide informed us, the equipment and technology that has to be developed to do the basic research often leads to practical applications in other fields on a much shorter time frame.
Thoughts Inspired by Leon Lederman: A Footnote
I had the great privilege in October 2004 of attending a talk given by Leon Lederman (1922-), winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics and director emeritus of Fermilab. I listened intently and took a lot of notes, but what I remember best besides his charm and engaging speaking style was his idea for restructuring high school science education. The growing scientific illiteracy in American society, and the growth of dogmatic religious doctrine, is alarming. Lederman advocates that all U.S. high school students should be required to take a conceptual physics & astronomy course in 9th grade, chemistry in 10th grade, and biology in 11th grade. Then, in 12th grade, students with a strong interest in science would take one or more advanced science courses.
Teaching conceptual physics (and astronomy) first would better develop scientific thinking skills and lay a better groundwork for chemistry, which in turn would lay a better groundwork for biology. Whether or not a student chooses a career in science, our future prosperity as a society depends, in large part, on citizens being well-informed about science & technology matters that affect all of our lives. We also need to be well-equipped to assimilate new information as it comes along.
It is in this context that I was delighted to read Leon Lederman’s commentary, “Science education and the future of humankind” as the last article in the first biweekly issue of Science News (April 21, 2008). He writes:
Can we modify our educational system so that all high school graduates emerge with a science way of thinking? Let me try to be more specific. Consider Galileo’s great discovery (immortalized as Newton’s First Law): “An isolated body will continue its state of motion forever.” What could be more counterintuitive? The creative act was to realize that our experience is irrelevant because in our normal experience, objects are never isolated—balls stop rolling, horses must pull carts to continue the motion. However, Galileo’s deeper intuition suspected simplicity in the law governing moving bodies, and his insightful surmise was that if one could isolate the body, it would indeed continue moving forever. Galileo and his followers for the past 400 years have demonstrated how scientists must construct new intuitions in order to know how the world works.
I’d like to take Lederman’s comments one step further. Whether it be science, politics, economics, philosophy, or religion, we must realize that most ignorance is learned. We all have blind spots you could drive a truck through. Our perceptions masquerade as truth but sometimes upon closer inspection prove to be faulty. Therefore, we must learn to question everything, accepting only those tenets that survive careful, ongoing scrutiny. We must learn to reject, unlearn if you will, old intuitions and beliefs that are harmful to others or that have outlived their usefulness in the world. We must develop new intuitions, even though at first they might seem counterintuitive, that are well supported by facts and that emphasize the greater good. We must, all of us, construct new intuitions in order to make our world a better place—for everyone.