10 Discoveries / Innovations That Made Fermilab History
This year Fermilab celebrates a half-century of groundbreaking accomplishments. In recognition of the lab’s 50th birthday, Fermilab recently posted (in no particular order) a different innovation or discovery from Fermilab’s history every day between April 27 and June 15, the date in 1967 that the lab’s employees first came to work.
The list covers important particle physics measurements, advances in accelerator science, astrophysics discoveries, theoretical physics papers, game-changing computing developments and more.
While the list of 50 showcases only a small fraction of the lab’s impressive resume, it nevertheless captures the breadth of the lab’s work over the decades, and it reminds us of the remarkable feats of ingenuity, engineering and technology human beings are capable of.
It’s generally agreed that the three fundamental particles discovered at Fermilab were the top quark, the bottom quark and the tau neutrino, but there are all kinds of contributions to science and business and human history that can’t be measured, even with the tools at Fermilab’s disposal.
That said, here are the first 10 posts from Fermilab’s list of 50, courtesy of Fermilab Frontiers. Check out this article, which talks about the Top 10 Fermilab discoveries of all time and subscribe to Fermilab Frontiers to keep up with what’s happening today.
1. CDF and DZero Discover Top Quark
On March 2, 1995, physicists at Fermilab announced the discovery of a subatomic particle called the top quark. It was the last undiscovered particle of the six-member quark family predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. Scientists worldwide had sought the top quark since the discovery of the bottom quark at Fermilab in 1977.
The CDF and DZero experiment collaborations discovered the particle using particle beams from Fermilab’s Tevatron, the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator at the time.
2. Tevatron Is the World’s First Superconducting Particle Accelerator
Early accelerators used magnets made of electrical wire wrapped into coils, but those electromagnets lose swaths of energy as heat, driving the electricity bill through the roof. The solution was superconductivity.
When cooled to near absolute zero, certain metal alloys allow electric current to flow freely without losing heat. Wound into a coil, they become superconducting magnets, an energy-efficient technology that was already familiar to physicists but never scaled to such a massive endeavor.
Alvin Tollestrup was awarded both a National Medial of Technology and the APS Robert R. Wilson Prize for the innovation.
3. Fermilab Searches For Evidence of Dark Matter With Gamma-Rays From the Center of Our Galaxy
Researchers believe that gamma rays — a very energetic form of light — could be produced when hypothetical dark matter particles decay or collide and destroy each other. Fermilab scientist Dan Hooper co-discovered more gamma-rays than he could explain at the center of our own galaxy in 2009 and sparked international interest.
Whether dark matter particles or something else is responsible for these gamma rays remains an open and hotly debated question.
4. Bs Matter-Antimatter Oscillations Go at 3 Trillion Times a Second
The Standard Model of physics makes some not-so-standard predictions about our universe. Fermilab has pioneered extremely precise technologies that put these theories to the test, including the CDF experiment, which confirmed in 2006 that, yes, a Bs (pronounced “B sub s”) meson actually does switch between matter and antimatter 3 trillion times a second.
Particle physics labs were the first pioneers on the World Wide Web. The second web server in the United States belonged to, you guessed it, Fermilab.
When it went live in 1992, Fermilab joined a small community that included CERN, SLAC and Nikhef, the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics.
6. Tevatron Is The First Accelerator to Use an Electron Lens
Fermilab’s Tevatron was the first particle accelerator to make use of an electron lens, a technique that allowed the machine to compensate for destabilizing forces unavoidably generated by the colliding beams.
Proposed in 1997, the lenses were installed in 2001 and 2004 in the Tevatron, where they demonstrated beam-beam compensation. They were also used in the removal of unwanted particles. The innovation earned Fermilab scientist Vladimir Shiltsev a European Physical Society Accelerator Prize.
7. Fermilab Produces Scintillating Fiber For Large-Scale Experiments
Fermilab was the first facility to produce plastic scintillating material in fiber form.
This plastic scintillating fiber, or SciFi, was first used in a large-scale experiment in 1990. Fermilab later developed an extruded plastic scintillator, which is used in the MINOS detectors. Extruded plastic scintillator is produced exclusively at Fermilab and used in particle detectors worldwide.
8. CDF Rounds Up The Final Meson
On March 5, 1998, Fermilab announced it had discovered the Bc meson. This particle was the last of 15 unexcited quark-antiquark pairs to be discovered.
The first one had been discovered 50 years earlier in cosmic rays, but this flighty character, which lives just 0.46 picoseconds, could be found only as a product of powerful, high-energy particle collisions.
9. Fermilab Develops CCDs For Dark Matter Detection
Fermilab experiment DAMIC shielded a bundle of charge-coupled devices, CCDs, in a copper box, in a copper tube, in lead, deep underground. Any particle that could penetrate the extreme security system would be a top candidate for dark matter.
CCD technology, however, was first developed for the Dark Energy Camera. And Fermilab astrophysicist Craig Hogan noted the “delicious irony that these detectors, which are so perfectly adapted for peering to the edge of the universe that we take all the way to Chile for better skies, are now buried in underground caverns to look for invisible particles.”
10. Scientists Close In on Dark Matter Using Dark Energy Survey Data
Scientists exploring data collected by the Fermilab-constructed, Chilean-based Dark Energy Camera discovered 20 satellite galaxies of the Milky Way, nearly doubling the number previously known and adding to those identified by the earlier Sloan Digital Sky Survey, another project where Fermilab played a key role.
These tiny satellite galaxies can contain hundreds of times more dark matter than normal matter. Whether the mysterious dark matter turns out to be axions, weakly interacting massive particles or something else, DECam has proven itself to be a powerful new tool for the dark matter community.