Looking at Ruins

Scope Correspondent

As promised, my guide took me straight to the tomb of Rosie and the Jolly Green Giant. Bundled up against winter’s relentless bite, we wound our way through a wide-open cavern spotted with the deserted artifacts of previous occupants.  Following a maze of makeshift partitions, we eventually came to what I believed to be a back entrance, although I was so turned around that I couldn’t be sure. Stepping out into the refreshingly crisp air for just a few steps, we crossed a patch of treacherous ice and entered the tomb.

Dimly lit at first, the long, tunnel-like enclosure seemed to get brighter toward the opposite end. Chock full of unfamiliar ruins that seemed to indicate a swift exit on the part of its former owners, the space allowed us to walk only single file along the walls. I had been looking down toward my feet, trying not to trip on the uneven ground, when I heard my guide Eric, a shaggy-haired, aging hippie type, ask:

“Now, who do you think this guy is?”

Big and green, it was obvious.

“The Jolly Green Giant!” I said.

My journey through the ruins of science began in a single instant. It was a bright, summer afternoon in Illinois, and I was visiting a friend at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory — an 11-acre patch of preserved prairieland that unexpectedly doubles as a hotbed for particle physics and cosmology research. Amid our wanderings, we ducked into a large, cylindrical building to gaze up at a 17,600 pound, two-story tall metal ring that Fermilab scientists once used to simulate the movements of a telescope in Chile. Still vertically mounted as if waiting for the building’s domed roof to reveal the night sky, the ring sat silently collecting dust.

My friend and I ventured up a flight of stairs on the perimeter of the building’s interior and stood eye-level with the top of the ring. Gazing down at the smattering of experimental bits and pieces at its base, most of which seemed only related to the ring by their mutual neglect, something struck me. Perhaps because there were no scientists in sight to distract from the objects themselves, or perhaps because the enormity of the ring made its state of decay particularly noticeable, I began to wonder aloud to my friend about the ubiquity of science’s castoffs.

I knew from my days as a physics student at the University of Michigan that there was at least one other place in the world where old equipment seemed to accumulate — Randall Laboratory room 4268, where my peers and I spent hours upon hours toiling with oscilloscopes, Geiger counters, ammeters, lasers and all the rest of the tools in an undergraduate physicist’s investigative arsenal.

Standing there at Fermilab like an archeologist at the site of a new discovery, I decided that two data points was convincing enough evidence that I was on to something. Thus, my expedition began.

And then it stopped. And started. And stopped. I left Fermilab intending to unveil something insightful about the cluttered wake of scientific progress, but I couldn’t quite figure out why I, let alone anybody else, should care about old equipment. Of course, it’s there — that’s no surprise. Experiments end; tools grow obsolete; projects lose funding. So like a scientist leaving her old devices behind to move on to her next experiment, I too shoved them to the corners of my mind and moved on.

Until that fall when I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to complete a one-year master’s degree in science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Suddenly thrust into an engine of scientific research, those dusty old objects — outdated computers, spare cables, microscopes, detectors, glassware — lying in cabinets, closets and corners all over the world wouldn’t leave me alone.

Finally giving in to their incessant cries for attention, I decided to reopen the question that nagged at me earlier that summer: should we be paying more attention to the waste stream of the scientific process? On the one hand, I thought, how could we ignore such a ubiquitous byproduct of our progress? It’s a significant mark on the world that we aren’t taking responsibility for. On the other hand, I countered to myself, maybe progress was important enough that society could have a pass on brushing its debris under the rug. Consumer waste is just waste, but scientific waste? It’s a sign that the process is working. Every obsolete device a stepping stone.

Either way, I wouldn’t find the answer amid the thoughts bolting around in my head, so I started to ask around.

A boisterous decommissioning expert from Argonne National Laboratory told me over the phone that when he and his team clean up a lab, they just see a bunch of garbage that would be too expensive to clean up for reuse. It’s easier to just box it up and send it off to the landfill, he said.

But museum curators I spoke with said that, of course, we have to consider the fate of these old objects. It’s a matter of documenting scientific progress. John Durant, the director of the MIT Museum, told me that a few years ago he got a call from a scientist who worked on the Human Genome Project.

“Whatever happened to the Genomatron?” the man asked.

Durant didn’t know what to say. He had never heard of a Genomatron, even though the big, boxy machine had been a state-of-the-art genome sequencing tool for a brief period of time during the 1990s before the swift advances in genomics technology made it obsolete. By the time I sat down in Durant’s office to pick his brain, he still didn’t know what happened to the Genomatron but said it was most likely dismantled and lost to history. Durant lamented that it would be a lot easier to keep track of these things if all scientists appreciated their apparatuses in the context of history.

What I’ve learned through my research is that scientists more often run off to their next experiments like children who leave their toys sprawled on the floor of one room because they’re too excited to go play with the toys in the next. Most try to reuse what they can; some hold on to a device or two for posterity; others never really think about the fate of their old toys. Regardless, with enough prodding, they almost all admit to feeling attached to their devices before leaving them behind, like old friends who lose touch.

Back in Illinois the following January, I went to visit Fermilab’s warehouse, where reusable equipment flows into and out of the lab. With a camera dangling from my neck, I slowly wandered the rows upon rows of misfit devices for more than an hour. There were the usual odds and ends of an office — dozens of keyboards, stacks of computers, tangles of wires — and the not-so-usual odds and ends of a physics laboratory like a metal cylinder the size of a small car propped up on four legs, and a few especially dusty apparatuses that looked like they came straight out of a 1980s science fiction movie. One in particular called to me from a wooden crate under a shelf. It was an array of one-foot-tall metal coils. I didn’t know what it was used for, but I nevertheless spent about twenty minutes trying to take its picture, blindly shoving the camera under the shelf and praying for a good shot, lying down on the floor and twisting my body in ways that did nothing but kick up clouds of dust.

Later on during that trip, I made my way to Eric Ramberg’s office. A particle physicist who has been at the lab for decades, Eric was eager to take me around on a tour of some of the lab’s more interesting ruins. One of the highlights, he told me, would be two old magnets called Rosie and the Jolly Green Giant.

Both about one-and-a-half times the height of an average adult, Rosie weighs a hefty 165 tons and the Jolly Green Giant a whopping 283. In the early 2000s, a group of Fermilab scientists proposed using them in a new experiment to study the properties of certain subatomic particles like pions and kaons and their respective antiparticles. Their plan was to send a beam of those particles through the Jolly Green Giant’s magnetic field, which would scatter them through an apparatus called a time projection chamber used for measuring particles’ momenta. Then Rosie would refocus the particles into tight beams on their way to smashing into various targets and sending off debris for the scientists to further analyze.

A true “Frankenstein machine,” as Eric put it, the whole experiment was a mishmash of found pieces and parts, including both magnets, which Fermilab shipped in from other labs. On the opposite side of the tunnel from where we were walking, reams and reams of cables stacked about four feet high lined the wall. It was the scientists’ way to delay an electric signal, Eric explained with a chuckle.

Staring at the cables and laughing, I wondered if the scientists also laughed when they put them there ten years prior.

The project went under after only about six years of unsuccessful runs. True to form, the researchers seemed to have dusted themselves off and moved right on to the next experiment, leaving Rosie and the Jolly Green Giant to rest like an old married couple buried side-by-side.

Looking around at the experiment, I wanted to know so much. Where did the magnets get their names? How did the scientists feel at the end of the last run? These ruins had stories to tell but were gagged the moment they got left them behind.

Perhaps Rosie, the Jolly Green Giant, that array of dusty coils, the giant metal ring, the Genomatron and all the rest of science’s castoffs are more than just garbage that we need to take responsibility for. They’re all part of our history, and they all have stories to share. Maybe if we take a look under the rug every once in a while, our past would take on a whole new dimension.

When I arrived at MIT, I had a five-year-old laptop and an ancient flip phone that couldn’t even take pictures. They were both semi-dysfunctional, but they were my buddies, and I refused to replace them. When they died soon after I arrived at MIT, I stashed them in a corner of my bedroom and didn’t think about them for months. I finally dug them out the other day, and, holding them in my hands, felt almost transplanted into a forgotten past life. I didn’t realize how much I had let slip away.