The documentarian becomes the documented

“Scientists are great scavengers. If there’s useful equipment left in the aftermath of an experiment, they’ll find it. Equipment is expensive, and government funding is tight, so if there’s a way to get something for free, or just the cost of shipping, why not?”

That was me, writing three years ago about the ruins of science. I was nearing the end of a one-year master’s program in science writing, and this was my pièce de résistance, a 12,000-word feature on the fate of abandoned lab equipment.

The idea came to me the previous summer on a trip to Fermi National Laboratory in Illinois. My ex-boyfriend and I were exploring the lab, when we came upon a domed, two-story building. Inside was a huge decommissioned telescope simulator surrounded by piles of accompanying scientific detritus. The sight left me in a moment of existential pondering, and I left Illinois with a lingering obsession over what amounted to dusty electronics.

Fast forward a few months, and I’m pitching thesis ideas to my classmates and professors at MIT. I get the green light to wade into the ruins and, after another few months of dogged reporting, end up with a magazine-style feature centered around the Tevatron, a 4.26-mile particle collider lying decommissoined under the Illinois prairie. Here’s a look down the Tevatron’s curving, 10-foot tall tunnel (photo courtesy of Brian Nord):


I bring this up now, because my adviser and I just spent the summer filling an abandoned lab space with scavenged equipment. And just like that, I’ve become the object of my own obsession. If only 2014 Suzanne could see me now: “Look, Q! I’m a scavenger! And yes, I’m still trying to cut my own hair.”

Anyway, you can read the entirety of The Ruins of Science: Whatever Happened to the Tevatron? here. Or you can just read the excerpt below. Either way, I hope you enjoy this thing that consumed me for an entire year.

Frankenstein and the Bone-pickers

The Tevatron remains mostly intact, but pieces have begun to go missing – a magnet here or there, vacuum equipment, electronics. Scientists are great scavengers. If there’s useful equipment left in the aftermath of an experiment, they’ll find it. Equipment is expensive, and government funding is tight, so if there’s a way to get something for free, or just for the cost of shipping, why not?

Experiments cobbled together with these found pieces and parts are what some Fermilab scientists call “Frankenstein machines.” One long-time scientist at the lab takes me to see one such experiment in the forgotten back corner of a building. As we walk around the clutter of electronics and seemingly endless reams of electric cables, he points to two magnets about twice his height. They’re called Rosie and the Jolly Green Giant, he tells me. Why? He doesn’t know. He also points out a few devices that are bigger than the scientists would have needed and notes the overall “incoherent aesthetic” of the experiment. It’s the quintessential Frankenstein machine. In the midst of explaining what this scrappy – and failed – experiment was meant to do, he stops. I see him sizing up a long metal object, and that’s when he tells me that his ulterior motive for taking me here is to check out this field mapper for a new experiment that he’s working on.

If the cluttered tomb of Rosie and the Jolly Green Giant has something to offer, then it’s no surprise that the Tevatron’s meaty corpse has also provided sustenance to these “bone-pickers,” as one scientist calls them.

The biggest draw has been the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF), one of the two detectors set up in buildings along the ring. A new experiment is in the works that will use that space and the detector’s central magnet. That means the 5,000-ton behemoth has to come apart.

The Collider Detector at Fermilab is one of two 5,000 ton detectors along the Tevatron’s ring. In 1995, scientists used this detector to discover the top quark, one of 17 known fundamental particles in the universe. It is now being taken apart (Brian Nord, Fermilab).

Jonathan Lewis is in charge of the detector’s dismantling after having worked with it for 22 years. Just outside of the CDF building in a group of trailers, I find the fast-talking, no-nonsense physicist sitting in a cramped, hole-in-the-wall office. He tells me a bit about the proposed new experiment that would use CDF’s magnet but is quickly called away for some decommissioning business over in the main building. I tag along for a tour of what’s left of the detector. Lewis grabs his hardhat, and we shuffle across the snowy parking lot to where protons and antiprotons used to meet their demise. Not far into the building, we come to a railing overlooking an open expanse reminiscent of an airplane hangar. Down below, I see the round end of a giant, hollow cylinder. The gutted detector, now missing its central component that traced collision debris, lies outside of the beam line that used to bring in the protons and antiprotons. Signatures of scientists who worked on the detector cover a nearby wall.

“You know, in the beginning, it was like you take your baby and you cut up to there, cut up to there,” Lewis says of the decommissioning process, motioning to the tip of one of his fingers. “Cut off the end of the finger, and tomorrow I’m gonna cut off the rest of the finger, and then after that I’ll go for another finger, and then next week we’re going for feet.”

Still, Lewis supports the decision to tear it down.

“Either it was going to sit there and do nothing, or it was going to be a display, which was kind of nice…It would’ve been nice to bring my friends and relatives and show it off, but it’s better to do science,” he says. “Our legacy is the 600 plus papers that have come out of the CDF experiment.”

Later, Lewis sends me an Excel spreadsheet called “TeV Scavengers” that lists who’s taken what. It shows pieces of CDF and other parts of the Tevatron going to new experiments at Fermilab, various labs around the U.S. and even all the way to CERN.

For equipment, whether from CDF or other experiments around the lab, that doesn’t have a place to go, there’s a warehouse on site where reusable bits and pieces come and go. I stop by to take a look at the loot and end up spending an hour and a half wandering the rows upon rows of dusty old devices lining two-story-high shelves. In an open part of the warehouse, I come to a cylinder lying on its side. It’s about three meters long and two meters in diameter. I’ve never seen anything like it. The round ends have concentric metal rings dotted with yellow knobs, and the walls are a clear, shimmery orange. The warehouse manager tells me that this was CDF’s central tracking chamber, the heart of the detector. From up close, I see that the walls contain thousands of hair-like gold wires stretched from end to end. Back when it was still in use, the chamber was full of argon and ethane gas that became electrically charged as collision debris flew through it. The trails of charge that followed each particle were like unique signatures that the wires could read and relay back to Fermilab scientists for analysis.

The manager leaves me to take pictures of the chamber. I stand there in awe. This piece of warehouse detritus found the top quark, I think to myself. Without that discovery, physicists’ working theory of fundamental particles wouldn’t have made sense. At the chamber’s base, random bits of old equipment, dwarfed by the cylinder’s grandiosity, look like worshipers bowing before their idol.

This central tracking chamber fit in the center of the Collider Detector at Fermilab. Its job was to trace the path of debris from particle collisions (Brian Nord, Fermilab).


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