High-energy particle physics uses mammoth, powerful metal-and-wire machines to search for the smallest constituents of life and matter by creating "explosions of energy" at nearly the speed of light. The process recreates at a tiny, tiny scale the primordial conditions of the universe just after the big bang.
I was sure I could excite a rough-and-tumble boy with this big, violent concept. Really, you can't get much more monumental--or, in boy-speak, "cool"--than that, right? Yet, as I tried to explain what Fermilab does to my science-loving 8-year-old son on the way to a Wonders of Science show there, I was hard-pressed to convince him that high-energy physics was even a little bit cool.
"They shoot a big beam, like a laser, underground," I said.
"Cool. Can you see it?"
"They smash tiny particles together that create the building blocks of life. Those particles fit together like your Legos."
"Cool. You can see those?"
"No. Not without a really expensive particle detector that works like a super microscope."
"Oh....That's really boring."
I had run out of explanations and lost the interest battle--but not the war, I was soon to find out.
At the 21st incarnation of the Wonders of Science show, my son's interest was piqued. He sat upright. Then he teetered on the edge of his seat, raising his hand high in the air to volunteer. By the end of the two-hour show, he was chanting "I love science" and planning what to tell his class on Monday.
Clad in colorful goggles, three high school teachers put on the same show at the Batavia laboratory that has appeared, in part, on television programs including Late Night with David Letterman.
The science teachers hooked my son, just like they hooked Letterman, with bangs, flashes, and noxious odors. His stimulus-loving radar fully awakened, they proceeded to educate him on cryogenics, superconductivity, and plasma beams.
The show included the rerequisite demonstrations on the basics of gravity and electricity, and even some shooting of toilet paper into the crowd. But the teachers focused most of the show on making the concepts behind particle physics accessible to elementary school-aged children, not a simple feat.
The teachers used easy-to-do and visually appealing classroom experiments to explain the concepts behind the world's most powerful high-energy particle accelerator at Fermilab. A short explanation before each experiment told the children how the science concept and experiment tied into Fermilab's daily work.
Exploding frozen racquetballs and bubbles of gassy air demonstrated the cryogenics that cool the magnets that focus particle beams. A magnetic cube levitating above a cooled magnet showed how superconductivity reduces the resistance on the particles' paths. Graphite and a toothpick in a microwave showed the crowd the concepts behind focusing a beam of plasma particles. The ensuing smell and glowing microwave interior had my son uttering "Cool."
The rest of the day he proudly told everyone we met that he knew people who worked at Fermilab.
Photos by Cindy Arnold