Most of us remember playing with magnets when we are kids. Scientists are a little like grown-up kids, so they also enjoy playing with magnets. The difference is that the magnets they play with are a lot bigger.
As we remember from high school (those of us who took physics, anyway), magnatism, as well as being fun, is also one of the fundamental forces of nature, along with gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Einstein spent much of the latter part of life working on a unified field theory, which would mathematically unite these four forces into one, and was ultimately unsuccessful in his quest. Physicists haven’t given up, however. Atomic particle accelerators like the massive one at CERN in Europe are basically giant magnets, using magnetic force to accelerate elementary particles to almost the speed of light so they can be smashed head-on into each other. Now, the scientists at Fermilab near Chicago (where the first man-made nuclear fission reaction occurred in December 1942) have a brand new toy to play with.
The 50-foot-wide, 15-ton electromagnet attracted a sensation wherever it went during its slow, delicate 3,200-mile journey from New York to suburban Chicago. The land-and-sea trip culminated when scientists threw a rock star’s welcome for the mysterious, shrink-wrapped cargo on Friday as it arrived at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to help study blazing-fast particles.
Fermilab officials plan to use the magnet in a physics experiment called Muon g-2 that will study subatomic particles at their lab in Batavia, outside Chicago. The experiment will study the properties of muons, subatomic particles that live only 2.2 millionths of a second.
The results of the experiment could create new discoveries in the realm of particle physics, said Chris Polly, manager of the Muon g-2 project at Fermilab.
The hulking magnet is a hand-me-down from New York, where it was built in the 1990s with aluminum and steel by scientists at the Brookhaven National Lab on eastern Long Island. It has superconducting coils inside and, at the time it was built, was the largest electromagnet in the world.
Brookhaven scientists no longer had a need for the electromagnet, and shipping it to the Midwest for about $3 million was cheaper than the alternative. Constructing an entirely new electromagnet could have cost as much as $30 million, Polly estimated.
Moving the thing, however, was in some ways as complicated and as delicate a maneuver as building it. It could not be taken apart or twisted more than about an eighth of an inch without irreparably damaging the coils, Polly said.
It started its trip in late June, floating by barge down the East Coast into the Gulf of Mexico — where it outran a tropical depression — then up the Mississippi River, where it was photographed drifting past St. Louis’ arch on its way into Illinois.
Just south of Chicago, it was hauled out of the water and strapped onto a specially made 16-axel flatbed truck for its final leg. It traveled at a mere 5 to 15 mph, with a behemoth bumper sticker informing puzzled onlookers that it was “Driving discovery in particle physics.”
With a police escort, it finally rolled into the suburban Chicago lab shortly after 4 a.m. Friday with an “oversize load” sign and a waving American flag.
During Friday evening’s celebration, Fermilab planned a community open house and magnetic experiments and lessons for children.