Friday, December 9, 2005

Quenchers, Part III

The story, continued.

When we got there, we spoke with the head of the Acclerator mechanics. Right away we could tell this was a bigger deal than I had previously thought when I said it was kind of a routine thing. I asked if it was a four-alarm fire. He said "Nope. I'd call it a 10-alarm fire." He said it was maybe the worst quench he'd ever seen in twenty something years at Fermilab.

Naturally, we were really excited to get in the tunnel and get some footage of it all. There was a little shuffling and some back and forth along the lines of "I'll have to check." (to Dr. Johnson) "It is OK?" "Is it OK with you?" "Yeah. Is it OK with you?" "If it's OK with you, it's OK with me." "I'll have to check with my guys." (to guys) "Is it OK with you?" "Is OK with Dr. Johnson?" "If it's OK with you, it's OK with him." "Well, if it's OK with you, it's OK with us." (to us) "Well, I guess it's OK."

We breathed a sigh of relief. The three of us went through a 15-minute radiation training session and Andrew and I went down to the tunnel --- each with two doseometers (to check radiation levels), an emergency oxygen supply, and an escort (Monica decided to stay above ground). We were allowed 15 minutes in the tunnel.

We got 15 minutes of footage of a repair crew, some helpful explanations, and a slightly different sense from one of the mechanics there.

"It happens," he said, shrugging. I asked him if he would consider this a 10-alarm fire. "Nah," he said. "Pretty routine."

As we left I noticed they had a radio down there, underground. A wire was wrapped around the antenna and snaked its way to a copper pipe on the wall and wrapped around it (you can see this pipe in Quenchers II --- one of two parallel pipes above the guy's head). I asked if they could get reception.

"This is a water line, a copper pipe that goes all the way around the ring. We're Bears fans. With a four-mile circular piece of 2-inch copper, I'd say right now we've got about the best AM radio antenna in the world."


While Andrew and I were down in the tunnel, Monica was having a great conversation with one of our hosts. Without the camera. Because, like some of the people we run into, he flat-out refused to get on camera. He expressed fear and doubt about the future of Fermilab, frustration with the government and with American culture. In short, he verbalized every theme we want to pursue, with a more direct pathos than we've heard so far. There was a distinct difference in his point of view: he was an engineer, not a physicist, and had a completely different relationship with the machine, the Tevatron, than that of the physicists. I hate to keep making Star Trek analogies, but these guys are truly the Red Shirts in Engineering. They know every screw, nut, and bolt, and jump in to fix anything that ever goes wrong. Their story is quite different from those of the physicists, who see the Tevatron as a means to an end (i.e. getting high-energy science out of it). They'll go where ever new science is happening. But the engineers and mechanics --- they only know the Tevatron. They're not likely to jump over to Geneva in 2007. What are they feeling?

The problem is, they, more than anyone, are resistant to getting in front of the camera. And if they do, they stiffen like witnesses on the stand (one guy answered all Monica's questions using "ma'am" : "Ma'am, I'm not qualified to answer that question. Yes, ma'am. I'll have to check on that, ma'am.")

Monica was exasperated with the poignancy of the conversation she had had --- off camera. So what to do? In the car on the way home, she suggested we sit down with a couple of the engineers and mechanics, maybe even three or four, in a very informal "roundtable" type of discussion. Try to make it feel more like a conversation, rather than an "Interview." I thought it sounded like a great idea. I wrote back, suggesting such an arrangement. Haven't heard a word.

I tend to believe this quench is more than just "nah. Routine." The tevatron will be offline for over two weeks. Even though it doesn't really alter the search for the Higgs or ultimately affect the machine, it demonstrates how delicate this huge device can be --- and how many people depend on it.

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