Friday, October 15, 2004

Trouble in the Control Room

On Tuesday, we got the chance to get inside the Main Control Room, which is sort of like the Bridge on the Enterprise in Star Trek. Also a little like the big room in the Kennedy space center where everyone monitors the progress of the space shuttle. As you might expect, there are dozens and dozens of computer monitors, and anywhere from 10 to 40 people wandering around, sitting, standing, talking, looking intently, pointing, running, laughing, and eating sandwiches. It was quite a place. It was also the place where we were yelled at for the first time in making our film, but I'll get to that later.

Our plan for the day was three-fold. First, we were going to get some footage of the spectacular and beautifully-named Tevatron (specifically the impressive sounding Cockroft-Walton device) which looked straight out of Flash Gordon. This thing was incredible, and we had seen photos of it many times (any journalist visiting Fermilab is always taken there since it's so photogenic), so we knew we wanted footage of it. It's in a cavernous room and looks very much like a cartoon robot: a large metallic square standing on legs composed of large round spheres, a little like the legs on Robbie the Robot. In fact, the whole thing is rounded, because it operates at such massive voltage levels that any square edge or corner would cause it to arc to the wall like a bolt of lightning (and probably about as powerful as a lightning strike). It looks very much like a science-fiction artist from the early sixties dreamed it up, and it's a little hard to believe that it's shape and look are strictly functional. But we took their word that the designers had only its efficient operation in mind when they made it.

Originally uploaded by 137 Films.

The second thing we were going to do was get some footage in the Main Control Room. Every year in October, the Tevatron (which is essentially the engine in the huge particle accelerator ring) is shut down for two months for routine maintenance and upgrades. It had just shut down, we were able to have access to the Main Control Room (MCR) during this downtime. We thought we'd get some footage of the people who actually run the joint.

The third part of our day was to be actually allowed inside the ring tunnel itself. The tunnel has a four-mile circumference and is underground. It's a little like a subway tunnel --- probably ten or twelve feet high. Along the outer wall is a series of pipes and supports, electronics and mysterious machinery, serving to enhance a pipe about eight inches in diameter. This is where the actual proton and anti-proton beams race around, sped up and directed by hundreds of superconducting magnets, eventually to be collided at unimaginable speeds at the detectors located elsewhere around the ring. But that's for a different post. Suffice it to say that we were lucky that they agreed to let us in the ring; when the accelerator is actually in operation it's completely off limits due to the intense radiation.

We first went to the MCR. All of us were there except Elizabeth, our fund development person. We received a radiation briefing and were given radiation detectors to make sure we didn't recieve an unsafe dose. Then we went into the MCR --- just Stef with the camera, Andrew with the microphone, and me, since they didn't want a crowd of five. We got footage of the activity, which was on the mild side since the accelerator was not actually in operation. After a few minutes, we were told that we could get inside the ring in one hour. Since we were visitors, accelerator protocol required that we be accompanied by one guide per person, and they could spare only three guides. In other words, three of us could go, accompanied by three guides. Bob Mau, the guy in charge, told us not to be late.

Then we left for the Cockroft-Walton. One of our main subjects, John Conway (an easy-going experimentalist working on the Higgs search) was with us, because he had never actually seen much of this equipment. He seemed interested to take a look at the guts of the accelerator, since he did all his work over at one of the detectors, a third of the way around the ring.

When we got there, we were shown around by Ray, an engineer with a great face. He gave us a brief tour. As I mentioned, the place was just gold for the camera, so we got lots of shots. Down on the floor, looking up at the Cockroft-Walton, I looked at my watch and noticed we had about 15 minutes before our rendezvous for the trip into the ring. I looked over at John and asked if he thought it would be OK if we were a few minutes late. I knew that packing up video gear took longer than you might think.

"No problem," he said. "Don't worry about it."

Big mistake.

We arrived twenty minutes late back at the MCR. Monica had graciously volunteered to sit out and let me go in (I think she might have been feeling a little claustrophobic about being in a dingy, curved tunnel full of potential radioactivity --- can you blame her?) so Stef, Andrew and I walked in, ready to go.

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Bob Mau descended upon us. "So here's my video crew?" he thundered. "We have graciously allowed you a tour. I specifically told you to be here at two o'clock sharp! I've got three engineers wasting time waiting for you and I need all the people I have here! We've had many video crews here before and NO ONE has ever been this disrespectful! I want you to know right now that you are NOT in our good graces!"

What could I say? He was absolutely right. I stammered an apology, hoping upon hope that he would still allow us in the ring. The control room had gotten embarrassingly quiet. He turned to someone and said "Sorry. I just had to get that off my chest." I could have sworn I saw him wink, but I couldn't bet on it.

Much to my relief, he pointed out our guides. They were young, in their twenties, and looked stern while Bob was there. After we donned our hard hats and went inside the ring, they delicately told us not to worry too much about the outburst. Clearly they had the utmost respect for their boss, and didn't want to dismiss what he had said, but it sounded like they were accustomed to a blow-out every once in a while. But that's what bosses are supposed to do, right? I have a feeling that's exactly what Captain Kirk would have done if some 24th century documentarians had been late for a tour of the Enterprise's engineering section.

The ring itself was slightly anti-climactic, although it's hard to imagine anything topping the Cockroft-Walton. It was hot, dim, slightly dingy, and looked a little more like, well, a subway tunnel than anything else. We asked some questions of our guides, who were very reluctant to get in front of the camera, and got some shots.

Afterwards we left, thanking our guides and asking them to convey our sincere thanks and apologies again to Dr. Mau. Later, when I sent an email to Fred Ulrich, the guy who had helped set up the interview, he responded with "I was present when Bob Mau expressed himself and it was an uncomfortable moment." How's that for understatement? When I informed him we'd be sending an apology letter, he said, "that's probably a good idea."