Daily Herald
Wide-eyed looks at Fermilab
Batavia accelerator laboratory opens doors to families
By Mark Foster | Daily Herald Correspondent
Published: 1/28/2008 12:03 AM

When Mike Hickey of Geneva decided he would take his 9-year-old daughter and her friends to Fermilab for an afternoon of educational science demonstrations, the reaction was less than stellar.

"They weren't real enthusiastic right off the bat, now that we're here they're really enjoying it," Hickey said. "The games have captured their attention and imagination."

Like Hickey, many of the people who attended Sunday's annual family open house were visiting Fermilab for the first time, as they learned about magnets, gravity, light and all things science with the laboratory's staff members.

In the sunlight-filled atrium of Fermilab's towering Wilson Hall, parents watched as their wide-eyed children performed simple science experiments.

And in the Ramsey Auditorium, Jerry Zimmerman, known as Mr. Freeze, demonstrated the effects of liquid nitrogen, which is used every day by Fermilab physicists.

To show off its powers, Zimmerman immersed a banana in a container filled with liquid nitrogen. Then, he used that same banana to pound a steel nail into a block of wood.

Located on the western edge of Batavia, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory is a high-energy physics research facility, home to the world's most powerful particle accelerator.

Scientists from around the world use the lab's atom smasher to investigate the most fundamental building blocks of matter and to better understand how the universe works.

The 6,800-acre Fermilab site is home to a prairie grass restoration project, a herd of buffalo and cultural programs including concerts, films, lectures and art exhibits.

On the 15th floor of Wilson Hall, with its panoramic view of the laboratory grounds and far beyond, Fermilab physicists met one-on-one with visitors for the popular "Ask-a-Scientist" program.

"Some people are just curious about what their neighbors do," physicist Jim Hylen said. "Others are people with a science hobby who ask very sophisticated questions. It's a lot of fun to talk to people about something you love."

People also were asking the scientists about the federal budget cuts that are expected to produce layoffs and unpaid furloughs for the laboratory's staff.

Fermilab officials estimated that more than 2,000 people attended Sunday's event, which also included tours of the lab's linear accelerator and the popular cryonics show.

Liz Quigg of Fermilab's education office was among many staff members greeting visitors and providing tours. She said exposing children to science is an important goal of the open house.

"You want to get the kids when they are young so they understand the value of science to society," Quigg said.