For Students, Physics Comes to Life at Fermilab

Sep 13, 2016

IMG_1918One of the world’s foremost physics laboratories is just 30 miles from UIC. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL has seen some of the biggest discoveries in modern physics: the top quark, the bottom quark, and the tau neutrino were all discovered with the help of its powerful particle accelerators. Last spring, a group of UIC Physics Club students had the chance to tour the famous lab—commonly known as Fermilab—with professors Cecilia Gerber and Mark Adams.

As longtime members of the D0 experiment, a Fermilab project that started investigating the fundamental nature of matter in 1992, both Gerber and Adams have strong ties to the lab. Adams was part of the original team that proposed the experiment. Gerber joined 25 years ago as a student, and has remained involved ever since. Physics Club member Simona Curkoska, one of the student organizers of the tour, said hearing the professors’ stories about working at Fermilab changed her perspective: “It gave us a look inside a professional research group and how personal research becomes during, and even after, it has taken place.”

Because of the professors’ connections Fermilab, students got to see and experience areas of the lab that are off limits to many visitors. Gerber and Adams led students inside the underground tunnel of the now inactive Tevatron particle accelerator. The site of the 1995 discovery of the top quark, the Tevatron was the world’s most powerful particle accelerator until the Large Hadron Collider started operating in 2010. Students were also taken to see the MINOS experiment, which studies neutrino oscillations. Unlike the Tevatron, the MINOS experiment takes place deep underground. For Simona Curkoska, seeing the huge size of the experiment after the long elevator ride down “was remarkable and a little overwhelming.” 

This year’s trip to Fermilab was the second such outing led by Adams and Gerber. Arriving at end of a long academic year in which students worked and studied hard, seeing the world-famous lab firsthand made physics come alive for students. In Gerber’s words, “I think it made them see that physics is not just equations or abstract concepts.” 

Photo: Students stand in front of the 15-foot bubble chamber. The chamber, deactivated in 1988, was used in high-energy experiments that caused a boiling effect in subatomic particles.

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