Mine Over Matter

“The whole reason that we were able to do the thing under budget was that we got the very best millwrights and welders on the Range,” Miller explains. Just as the Soudan Underground Lab project was beginning to hire, the LTV taconite plant in nearby Eveleth was closed, putting hundreds of skilled laborers out of work. Doug Wiermaa had spent nearly 10 years at LTV when he interviewed for a job with MINOS. “It took us a while to figure it out, but Doug is really, really smart,” says Peterson. Wiermaa, who has a shy smile and works in jeans, a T-shirt, and an untucked, unbuttoned flannel shirt, clearly enjoys working with physicists. “None of us on the crew is educated—well, so-called ‘educated,’” he says. “But everyone down here treats us with respect, and they know that we know a few things they don’t.” He laughs as he recalls a physicist who approached him with a screw-gun in one hand, a screw in the other, and bewilderment on his face. “I think it was Louis [Barrett] who said that a physicist can tell you everything about a bolt except how to use it.”

Having worked on its construction, Wiermaa is now learning how to run the detector. In fact, for extended periods he and the six other crew members are the only staff assigned to the Soudan portion of the multi-million-dollar MINOS experiment. “We’re physicist-less a lot of the time,” shrugs Miller. “But that’s OK. We did it with other projects, too.” Maury Goodman is similarly nonchalant about entrusting the detector to the crew: “Maybe their instincts won’t be right all of the time. But look, they built the thing.”

You haven’t seen the buffalo?” Sergei Avvakumov asks. “Then turn left here,” he urges. The car speeds another mile or so through the prairie of the Fermilab campus, 40 miles west of downtown Chicago. “There.” The thirty-two-year-old Avvakumov, a native of Novosibirsk, Siberia, opens the door and stands at the roadside, a lanky, ethereal figure of at least six and a half feet, his thinning blond hair tossed in the breeze. He is wearing a MINOS T-shirt. Downwind, a herd of buffalo grazes on the restored prairie beneath the distinctive silhouette of Wilson Hall, Fermilab’s towering headquarters. “The buffalo have been out here from the beginning,” he says, displaying his detailed knowledge of Fermilab’s history. “But everything else has changed. It used to be farm fields out here. Now the suburban sprawl is really taking over,” he gestures toward several distant subdivisions creeping over the Illinois plains.

Had Russian funding for science not collapsed in the mid-1990s, Avvakumov might very well have remained in Russia. But after completing his M.A. at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, he found himself unemployed. “So I decided to study some more.” He entered the University of Rochester in 1994 to pursue his Ph.D. “It took me one year to complete the classes,” he says with a modest shrug. The remainder of his graduate education was spent at Fermilab, working on a neutrino experiment for his thesis.

Fermilab was established in the early 1960s to provide American physicists with the most powerful tool ever built for probing the fundamental constituents of matter. At its most basic, the facility consists of massive, billion-dollar magnets arranged in a four-mile circle around a tube the diameter of a drinking straw. Within that tube, subatomic particles are accelerated to phenomenal speeds and energies, thanks to the magnets, and then collided. Scientists are able to observe or deduce the nature of the subatomic world from the patterns left behind. Some particles can be diverted into a second accelerator—the Main Injector—which pushes them to even greater speeds and energies; they’re then fired through a high-tech gauntlet that transforms the particles into a nearly pure beam of neutrinos streaming north, toward Soudan.

Now working full-time on the MINOS experiment, Avvakumov is participating in the design of software that will reconstruct the paths of those few neutrinos that get captured by the far detector in Minnesota. He knows the Soudan Underground Lab well, having spent fourteen months there working on electronics. It is a period he remembers with fondness, since northern Minnesota reminds him of Siberia. Currently he spends most of his time in the twelfth-floor MINOS Control Room in Wilson Hall, which, despite its grand name, is a barren office equipped with a blackboard, conference table, worn sofa, ragged carpet, and three computers connected to the Soudan Underground Lab.

From the control room, Avvakumov points outside to a series of observation buildings, one of which temporarily houses the MINOS Near Detector, which is essentially identical to Soudan’s far detector, except for its smaller size. Oriented immediately downwind from the neutrino beam as it emerges from the Main Injector, it will allow physicists to measure the beam at its origination point, and compare it with measurements taken downstream at Soudan. With any luck, the differences should be significant enough to prove neutrino oscillation.

Unfortunately, contractor snafus, flooding, and a number of serious safety lapses have delayed construction of the Near Detector and the neutrino beam by two years and several million dollars. As a result, the Far Detector in the Soudan mine has been pressed into temporary service as a very expensive cosmic ray detector, reading the highest-energy particles that penetrate through 2,700 feet of earth and rock, until the MINOS experiment finally goes online in 2005. “Frankly,” sighs Bill Miller, “if things hadn’t gone so well with construction in Soudan, the funding for the project probably would’ve been pulled completely.”

Though sunlight is only a memory underground, there is an undeniable sense of approaching darkness as the day comes to an end at the Soudan Underground Lab. Lights are extinguished, computers idled. Yawns emanate from physicists and crew alike. Sitting in his office as the day winds down, Miller downloads “homework” onto a flash memory card and considers the future of the Soudan Underground Lab, which is not promising at the moment. “They could pull the plug on us in 2012,” he notes. The follow-up experiment to MINOS—named Off-Axis—will likely occur in northern Wisconsin. Soudan has long been a candidate as a site for the National Underground Laboratory (NUL), but funding is unlikely in the current environment. More seriously, the proposed NUL lacks a clear rationale, especially given the lack of detailed knowledge about the kinds of experiments it will house, according to one physicist associated with Soudan. Many believe that in the long and short term, building for specific experiments saves money. Either way, the Homestake Mine in South Dakota’s Black Hills is the leading candidate for an NUL, if one is ever built.

“Boat leaves in three minutes,” a carefree voice announces over the Soudan intercom system. “Boat leaves in three minutes.”
Miller finishes packing his bag. “Anyway, there just aren’t many places in the world like this.” He leads the way out of the office, stopping to shut off the lights. “And I hope people keep finding reasons to come up—and down—here,” he says as he clangs down the office pod’s metal steps.
“Boat leaves in two minutes,” the voice says gleefully. “Boat leaves in two minutes.”

Miller stands by the door to the MINOS cavern and watches as the crew makes its way to the elevator. Certain that everyone is out, he extinguishes the lights and walks to the waiting boat, without a glance back at the total darkness he’s leaving behind.

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