Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Sexy Results Crew at Fermilab

On February 18, 2012, my band IfIHadAHiFi will be participating in a variety show called Sexy Results: Cedar Block's Dig for the Higgs and How the Quest Was Won at Turner Hall. The show is part of Alverno College's Alverno Presents series and is being produced by Mr. Cedar Block himself, Brent Gohde. If you're a Milwaukeean, you may recognize the Cedar Block name as the group that brought you a series of "weird science fairs" and a few rad art exhibits at the Milwaukee Art Museum during which local artists produced work inspired by a prominent MAM exhibit.

Sexy Results is a quest to assist the search for the elusive Higgs Boson by using art in lieu of the particle accelerators we Milwaukee artist types obviously can't afford. Since art, music and fiction have predicted several scientific advancements in the past (GPS, cell phones, speculation of life on Europa)--why not use it to help discover the particle (called "the God Particle" thanks to a book by that name written by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman) that assigns mass to other subatomic objects?

IfIHadAHiFi's role in this project is to write and perform a batch of songs in which, not unlike how we endeavor to make noisy music palatable to pop music lovers, we attempt to make particle physics more appealing to those who have no idea what the science is all about. We're currently working on a block of six songs that we'll be recording in January and performing selections from during the show in February. Several other artists are working on stuff as well, but instead of giving too much away, suffice to say that it'll be loads of multimedia silliness and fun. Science!

To inspire the myriad folks working on the project, Brent managed to arrange a trip to Batavia, Illinois' Fermilab, the home of the Tevatron, the recently-deactivated particle accelerator (or "atom smasher") that discovered the top quark and was working on the Higgs before its defunding. Eleven of us (including musicians Nick Sanborn and Lia Manley-DeRuiter, Alverno Presents director David Ravel, all-around geek Joe Kirschling, and the High Frequency Media guys) were given the regular public tour, but thanks to Brent contacting one of Fermilab's scientists before our arrival, we got a bit more than the usual tours.

Upon approach, Fermilab, in rural Batavia, begins to loom over the horizon like it's the Minas Tirith of science. The elegant Robert Wilson Hall towers over the middle of nowhere. Having wanted to visit this place for a few years, my pulse quickened as soon as i spied it in the distance, as once we were parked, we had to spend a minute to take it in up close.

We were greeted inside by a kindly former teacher, Michelle, who acted as our tour guide, and Kurt, one of the Fermilab scientists who has spent time working on the Higgs. He let us know that everything was still on schedule; we'd take the standard tour, eat lunch with some of the physicists who have worked on the Higgs, and then the coup de grace--we'd get to see part of the Tevatron itself. Uh, woah. Brent and i especially began buzzing like excited fanboys when we discovered that one of the scientists we'd be having lunch with was none other than Ben Kilminster, the Simpsons fanatic/musician scientist who is featured on the front end of The Atom Smashers, the PBS documentary about Fermilab and its adventures in the subatomic microverse. (He's also spotted in the documentary with his band playing a ska song in which all the lyrics are Linux code. This guy rules.)

The public tour was very cool and informative--Michelle filled us in with lots of history about the center and quizzed us on our knowledge of chemistry and physics, doing her best to explain a baffling field of study, including the Standard Model of particle physics, in common terms. Brent was as terribly adorable as a kid who was having his favorite bedtime story read to him, constantly asking our guide if she was going to tell us about x or y that he was told about the last time he took the tour. She was so impressed with Brent's knowledge of the subject matter and the tour that she hilariously asked him how long ago he worked at Fermilab.

This is an aerial view of the Hall's main entrance from the 15th floor.

A replica of the Tevatron's accelerator tubes was bookended by mirrors in order to achieve the proper effect.

This i just thought was funny.

The cafeteria provided some decent lunch options (i had a pretty good steak sandwich), but our scientists--the aforementioned Kurt and Ben, plus a young dude named Aron who is (if i recall correctly) part of the team analyzing data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, and showed us the control room where the Fermilab scientists communicate with the LHC crew--were quick to point out that the food at CERN is way better because they serve wine. Pssh. Europe. Kurt asked us to tell them more about Sexy Results, and Brent obliged. I feel like he may have felt the same as i did after the already-impressive tour: here we were among some of the most brilliant minds in the world, people who have been studying particles and actually looking for the thing that enables the Universe to have mass and definition, and here we are gearing up for a doofy art project where we're going to try to "find the Higgs" via art when we have about as much knowledge about this stuff as a second grader learning cursive has about Shakespeare. But as he described the project, the big brains responded positively and with enthusiasm (when Brent explained that "sexy results" is a Simpsons reference, you could see Ben's wheels start to turn as he tried to pinpoint the episode in his head). All in all, they were excited to see artists eager to promote particle physics, especially when those artists have a healthy nerdy streak as well (Ben also lit up when Brent mentioned The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and how the Higgs relates to the answer--and question--of Life, the Universe, and Everything).

After lunch, it was time for the main event. We were led to another building and down some stairs to an underground chamber where, upon entering, my heart skipped a beat as i thought i saw the CDF (the Collision Detector at Fermilab - the actual instruments that measure the reactions as protons and antiprotons collide in the Tevatron) out of the corner of my eye. However, it was merely a matte photograph on a tapestry showing where the CDF gets rolled to when it needs to be worked on. It was a false alarm that made up for itself mere minutes later as we went down another flight of stairs, walked around a corner, and all sharply inhaled as we suddenly were in the same room as the three-story measuring tool that first observed the top quark in 1992. Thanks to former Fermilab director Leon Lederman's assertion in The God Particle that particle accelerators are the modern-day version of Stonehenge--an ancient structure built in an effort to greater understand the universe--i felt like i had just arrived at the Pyramids or Stonehenge itself, like i had just arrived at a modern wonder of the world, a place made mystical through man's attempt to understand his Universe through science. Look, it was pretty fucking awesome.

We were told that, when compared to the much larger, 25-meter high ATLAS collision detector at the LHC, the three-story CDF is very "cute" looking. Also, compared to a Tyrannosaur, i guess a Velociraptor looks like a cute cuddly kitty.

The CDF, now deactivated and defunded, is on its way to becoming a museum exhibit, Battlestar Galactica-style. While we were in the CDF room, we were informed that we were the first public tour to see it in person since its deactivation. Michelle, our tour guide, remarked that in ten years of giving Fermilab tours, this was the first time she had ever seen it in person. Chills, y'all.

I'm not sure i can adequately express my gratitude to the Fermilab staff for letting our gang behind the curtain. I feel extraordinarily privileged to have been this close to a piece of American scientific history, and i left Fermilab completely energized and anxious to pour as much energy into these songs as possible. It may not be the amount of energy that the Tevatron was able to generate, but as Brent has been saying...with us, it's about the angle of the collision more than the velocity.

Of course, it hasn't resulted yet in a huge output of lyrical content, but i'm working on it. Trying to write multiple songs about particle physics is very difficult when you don't want the lyrics to come out sounding as hokey as the Barenaked Ladies' Big Bang Theory theme song. Speaking of that show, by the way, many of its comedic stereotypes about supernerds and huge brains were proven wildly off base by the Fermilab scientists--not only did they all display perfectly normal social skills, but all three of them sported wedding rings. Particle physicists get crazy mad laid, y'all.

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