When physicist Robert Wilson designed Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, he included a herd of bison. He wanted to honor and preserve the image of the American prairie. But the herd's presence has taken on another meaning.
"Bison are a symbol of the (American) frontier," says cosmologist Craig Hogan. And frontiers are what Fermilab is about, he says, in a new documentary about the Batavia-based laboratory.
"Fermilab: Science At Work" attempts to explain why the laboratory is still important to science, and why the theoretical experiments conducted or supported there matter.
The film, which debuted this week, was directed by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross, of 137 Films. It can be seen here.
The 42-minute film explains Fermilab's role as a discovery laboratory. It is exploring the cosmic, energy and the intensity frontiers.
The film shows how Fermilab is re-purposing equipment used to generate data for proton/antiproton experiments into items that provide data for muon experiments.
It shows the insides of the Grid Computing Center, which stores data from the runs of seven accelerators at the laboratory since the legendary Tevatron was turned on in the early 1980s. Even though the Tevatron is no more, that data is still being studied by scientists worldwide.
"It's (data) gold. It's Fort Knox over there," marvels particle physicist Brendan Casey.
Neutrino physicist Bonnie Fleming, a mother of young children, explains how neutrinos can spontaneously change their flavors by likening the particles to ice cream cones changing flavors back and forth en route from the ice cream factory to the store.
And while the film shows the large, high-tech equipment the lab uses (including a dark-energy camera to be installed on a mountaintop in Chile,) it also reveals physicists' love for a low-tech item: a chalkboard.
Not a whiteboard.
Because chalk doesn't dry up while you stand there mulling a problem, Hogan says.