From the September 1974 issue

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory has rapidly established itself among the finest research centres in high-energy physics. It is operating the world’s highest energy, highest intensity proton accelerator and, until it is joined by the CERN SPS, has a monopoly on some almost completely unexplored regions of physics.

Something about the atmosphere of the Laboratory is different from any of the established high-energy physics research centres. Aesthetically, a spectacular site has emerged from the cornfields of Illinois. Managerially, a way of operating not in line with practices elsewhere has been implemented. Behind these features is Director R R Wilson, who set very ambitious goals and reached them with his own distinctive style.

A special effort has been made to establish a framework of equal employment opportunity to encourage the recruitment and training of staff from minority groups. The Laboratory Policy Statement says categorically “in any conflict between technical expediency and human rights, we shall stand firmly on the side of human rights.”

The spectacular site is also being used to preserve features of the region or to re-establish a lost environment. A herd of buffalo enjoys one field, a herd of Angus cattle another. The centre of the ring is being given over to a ten-year project to restore an area of prairie to its pre-urbanization state. It will be the biggest nature reserve of its type in the world.

• Compiled from texts on pp283, 285 & 292.

Proton radiography

A particularly lively topic at Argonne is the development of practical methods of using proton beams to take medical radiographs. A small group has been working on this in collaboration with members of the medical faculty of the University of Chicago. The group is very enthusiastic about the eventual value of proton radiography in medical applications, as an example of unexpected benefits from high-energy physics research.

The great attractiveness of the technique comes from the fact that the number of transmitted protons varies very rapidly near the end of their range so that slight density variations in the material traversed can cause dramatic changes in the number of emerging protons. This is in contrast to X-rays which are exponentially attenuated while traversing matter. Tumours and other abnormalities in human tissue are characterized by changes in density of a few percent or less from that of healthy tissue, so proton radiography could make the detection of tumours more reliable at an earlier stage of development than is possible at present and with a significantly smaller radiation dose.

When the project was first discussed at Argonne about a year ago, it was realized that, to become a common diagnostic tool, appropriate proton beams would be necessary at hospitals. R L Martin produced a conceptual design for a reliable and inexpensive 200 MeV proton diagnostic accelerator (PDA) which most hospitals could afford and operate. Ron Martin expressed it in his usual pungent style by saying that anyone who wants to shut down accelerators […] should have their heads examined and in another year Argonne will have just the tool to do it with.”

• Compiled from text on pp303–304.

Compiler’s Note

Robert Rathbun Wilson’s influence on the look and feel of Fermilab is legendary. A 20th century polymath, Wilson left another memorable legacy. Having worked on the Manhattan Project, he fought unceasingly for the peaceful use of atomic energy. A seminal contribution was his paper “Radiological Use of Fast Protons”, published in 1946, which established the fundamental tenets and techniques of proton therapy.

In 2000, Wilson was fittingly laid to rest in the Pioneer Cemetery, an early settlers’ burial ground dating from 1839 that became enclosed within the 6800 acre Fermilab site. In 2006, his wife Jane was buried alongside him.

About the author

Compiled by Peggie Rimmer.