(l.) Maury Tigner and (r.) Sol Gruner
The red brick columns face an unassuming parking lot on Campus Road across from Alumni Fields. One might write them off as part of Cornell’s physical plant until walking past and seeing the words, Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory. Curiosity takes hold: what happens inside the columns? Entering a column from the street puts you on the fifth floor, faced only by an elevator that provides the ride down. Then you realize it’s what takes place beneath the ground, under Alumni Fields, that matters. The journey is into the world of particle physics and x-ray science. Here is a look inside as Cornell scientists tell stories of collisions of the smallest kind and the most dazzling beams of light.
At the end of the nineteenth century scientists complacently believed that most of the fundamental physical laws governing the universe were known. Newton’s laws successfully described forces ranging from the action of mechanical machines to the motions of the planets.
The view that all was fundamentally understood was shattered in a half year at the end of 1895. On November 8, 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen noticed a green glow emanating from a phosphor screen near an experimental electrical apparatus enclosed in black paper in his Würzburg, Germany, laboratory. An invisible ray produced by his Crookes tube apparatus could penetrate the paper and excite the phosphor. Roentgen had discovered x-rays. In March 1896, Henri Becquerel, who was studying phosphorescence initiated by sunlight, wrapped his photographic plates in black paper and stored them in a drawer until the overcast skies above his Paris laboratory cleared. Much to his surprise, he found that the plates had become exposed anyway, a phenomenon he traced to emanations from some uranium minerals that happened to be in the same drawer. Becquerel had discovered natural radioactivity.
The discoveries by Roentgen and Becquerel rocked the world because they could not be fit into the existing scientific framework of the time. Both discoveries incited an ever-accelerating proliferation of experiments by investigators around the world and, within just a half century, led to the discovery of the atom and nuclear energy and the development of quantum mechanics. The discoveries indelibly shaped a world that, by the end of World War II, would have been unimaginable in the 1890s. They revealed that the universe is composed of many types of subatomic particles that interact according to rules that were only partly understood. By the end of World War II, it was abundantly clear that serendipitous discoveries in seemingly arcane areas of science sometimes lead to an understanding of nature that results, over the course of decades, in huge consequences for society.
A number of Cornell physicists were asked to serve on the Manhattan Project during World War II. After the war, Hans A. Bethe, the physicist who headed the theory division at Los Alamos, returned to the Cornell and persuaded Cornell president Edmund Ezra Day to found the Laboratory of Nuclear Studies (recently renamed the Laboratory of Elementary-Particle Physics, or LEPP) and to build Newman Laboratory to house the activity. LEPP quickly developed into one of the world’s leading centers of research in the physics of subatomic particles. The fundamental experimental tools of the trade were particle accelerator machines, so-called atom smashers. Cornell became one of the leading centers for the development of accelerator technology and the training of accelerator physics students.
“Most find excitement among the miles of twisted wire, pipes, and plumbing. Cornell Alumni often marvel at how little they knew about what went on beneath the athletic fields during their undergraduate years.”