Daily Herald
Fermilab blends art and nature with physics
By Danielle Kapolnek | Daily Herald Correspondent
Published: 10/17/2008 12:05 AM

When the mood strikes for a little culture, Fermilab's probably not even on your radar.

But you needn't be an astrophysicist to appreciate the cultural opportunities at the world-renowned national accelerator laboratory in Batavia. A pioneer in particle physics research, Fermilab regularly hosts concerts, films, lectures, folk dancing, stage productions and lectures, and has an art gallery to boot.

The 6,800-acre campus is also a nature lover's paradise with miles of scenic trails winding through woodlands, grasslands and more than 1,100 acres of restored tall-grass prairie. Myriad species of birds, butterflies, frogs and even buffalo can be found on the grounds.

That this oasis of art and nature can exist alongside the bustle of cutting-edge physics research, a place where you're monitored by security cameras and greeted by a guard requesting photo identification, is no accident. It was the brainchild of Fermilab's first director, Dr. Robert Wilson, who believed science and technology were not only connected to art, but born from it.

"Robert Wilson was a physicist as well as an artist," Fermilab Visual Arts Coordinator Georgia Schwender said. "He was very concerned with the aesthetics of 'place.'"

That is why, Schwender says, the electrical poles on Fermilab's property are shaped like the Greek letter pi, and why the roads through the campus meander, rather than follow a straight line. Even Fermilab's buffalo, symbols of the lab's prairie heritage and place at the frontier of physics research, have a reason for being there.

"Everything mattered to Robert Wilson," Schwender said. "When you drive in, he purposely didn't make it a straight line because if it's a straight line, you don't notice your surroundings. He put some turns and some trees in there, and it brings you to a different place."

Wilson was instrumental in the design of Fermilab's main building, the 16-story Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall. Inspired by a gothic cathedral in France, Wilson Hall's stately twin towers are home to the Fermilab art gallery. The gallery's location on the second floor, flanked by the offices of Fermilab's directors and the flags of countries whose scientists work there, was deliberate.

"We're very concerned about diversity of culture here," Schwender said.

Several of Wilson's own sculptures are showcased on the property, including the 32-foot high "Hyperbolic Obelisk," located just beyond the reflecting pond in front of Wilson Hall. Straddling the road at Fermilab's entrance on Pine Street is "Broken Symmetry," a three-span arch painted bright blue and orange. When viewed from below, the arch appears symmetrical but has carefully calculated asymmetry from other views.

Wilson's belief that a research laboratory should be a cultural center where the community feels welcome and leaves enriched is taken to heart, Schwender says.

The campus is open to visitors daily, and once a month Fermilab offers behind-the-scenes tours of its facilities. The art gallery in Wilson Hall is open before and after arts, lectures and film series events, or by appointment. There is even folk dancing two to three times a week where the public is welcome to join in. In the coming months, Fermilab's offerings will span the gamut from Shakespeare to international film showings to classical music concerts.

"Here at Fermilab, we're not making a product. We're here to learn, to learn about where we come from, how we are on this earth, the basics of our being. That's where art comes into this," Schwender said. "If we stripped society of everything except what's absolutely necessary, culture would go, and science would go because we'd be just trying to feed ourselves. This is something to enrich us."

Fermilab

Wilson and Kirk roads, Batavia, fnal.gov or (630) 840-3351

What's happening at Fermilab

Art

"Intersections: The Art and Science of Light"

What: Visual history and documentation of the bubble chamber experiment and role holography played in it

When: Now through Nov. 10 (by appointment or following cultural center series events)

Where: Art Gallery, Wilson Hall

Tickets: Free

Facts: Details: (630) 840-ARTS or fnal.gov/culture

Film

"A New Leaf"

What: Comedy about an aging playboy on a mission to marry a rich woman after squandering away his inheritance. Written for the screen by Elaine May from a short story by Jack Ritchie.

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24

Where: Ramsey Auditorium, Wilson Hall

Tickets: $5 adults, $1 children (younger than 12), $2 students with Fermilab ID

Facts: Details: (630) 840-ARTS or fnal.gov/culture

Lectures

"Facing the Frontier: Fermilab 1967-2008" by Adrienne Kolb

What: Lecture by Fermilab archivist Adrienne Kolb reveals how and why Fermilab came to Illinois. Kolb's new book, "Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier and Megascience," is the first history of Fermilab and illuminates the growth of the modern research laboratory and captures the drama of human exploration at the cutting edge of science.

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14

Where: Ramsey Auditorium, Wilson Hall

Tickets: $5

Details: (630) 840-ARTS or fnal.gov/culture