Fermilab Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience
by Lillian Hoddeson, Adrienne W. Kolb and Catherine Westfall
University of Chicago Press, 2008
Cloth: 978-0-226-34623-6 | Paper: 978-0-226-34624-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-34625-0


Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, located in the western suburbs of Chicago, has stood at the frontier of high-energy physics for forty years. Fermilab is the first history of this laboratory and of its powerful accelerators told from the point of view of the people who built and used them for scientific discovery.

Focusing on the first two decades of research at Fermilab, during the tenure of the laboratory’s charismatic first two directors, Robert R. Wilson and Leon M. Lederman, the book traces the rise of what they call “megascience,” the collaborative struggle to conduct large-scale international experiments in a climate of limited federal funding. In the midst of this new climate, Fermilab illuminates the growth of the modern research laboratory during the Cold War and captures the drama of human exploration at the cutting edge of science.


Lillian Hoddeson is the Thomas M. Siebel Professor of History of Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Adrienne W. Kolb is the Fermilab archivist. Catherine Westfall is visiting associate professor at Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University.


“Big Science keeps getting bigger—and the complexities of organizing a major laboratory at the edge of science run the range from instrumentation and sociology to the politics of congressional funding. Lillian Hoddeson, Adrienne Kolb, and Catherine Westfall have done a superb job of following the turbulent confluence of science and policy and created a major study of broad interest to anyone who wants to understand what large-scale research looks like in the real world.”

— Peter Galison, Harvard University

“For almost half a century, Fermilab has occupied center stage as physicists have sought to understand the fundamental structure of the universe. The lab deserves a good history, and I’m happy to say that in this book it has one. The authors present a compelling, nuanced, and richly detailed account of the place from its beginnings to the present.”

— James Trefil, George Mason University

Fermilab impresses with its detailed discussion of the technical, sociological, and political dimensions of the trials and triumphs of creating and operating a major research laboratory funded by the federal government. It brings vividly to life the laboratory and its people under the successive directorships of Bob Wilson, Leon Lederman, and John Peoples through description of representative experiments. A valuable account of a unique institution from its inception to the discovery of the top quark in 1995.”

— J. David Jackson, University of California, Berkeley, and head, Fermilab Theory Group, 1972–1973

“Fermilab is the grandest instrument ever built by American physicists; just one of its particle detectors is bigger than an entire laboratory of an earlier generation. This book tells the Fermilab story in full for the first time, and tells it as a human story, with no more technical detail than necessary. The book should appeal not only to readers interested in science and technology, but to anyone concerned about the negotiation and management of landmark projects.”

— Spencer Weart, AIP Center for History of Physics

"This book is masterful in being both a major scholarly contribution to the history of physics and a riveting read....The authors benefited from a long connection to Fermilab and complete access to personnel, files, and archives. They also display a sense of the historical changes and a thorough understanding of the physics. It is, however, to their great credit that they also have produced such a readable page turner. Fermilab, still working magnificently in 2009, has found the chroniclers it deserves."

— Gino Segrè, Physics in Perspective

"It is delightful to have in hand and to read the work of historians Lillian Hoddeson, Adrienne Kolb, and Catherine Westfall. Fermilab weaves their accounts into a coherent narrative in limpid prose that should be accessible to anyone with an interest in the history of late-20th-century science....Fermilab’s story is well told and attractively framed in the book, a fitting capstone for the edifice of historical scholarship that the authors have erected over 30 years. Megascience requires 'megahistory,' and Hoddeson knows how to pioneer in that field."—Robert W. Seidel, Science
— Robert W. Seidel, Science

Fermilab, the book, is the first written history of this unique place, covering both the birth of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and its journey to its current position as a world centre of ‘megascience’. Yet Fermilab is far from being a dry historical account. It spans the entire spectrum of what is required to establish a cutting-edge facility and perform research there — from organizational aspects and technological choices to the sociology and politics of funding and site selection….Fermilab will be of interest to anyone curious about science and science policy, as well as those who want a better understanding of what it is like to perform large-scale research in high-energy particle physics.”—Robert Roser, Physics World

— Robert Roser, Physics World

"A comprehensive and thoroughly engaging history of the world's first high-energy-particle physics laboratory. . . . The authors do an exceptional job of explaining the multitutde of tensions that led to the decision to construct Fermilab."
— Journal of Illinois History

"[The authors] do a wonderful job of weaving together the lab's technical and scientific developments with their corresponding social, institutional, political, and economic contexts. . . . The book's highly detailed, nuanced, and well-supported account of the intertwined developments in organization, technology, and scientific discovery as Fermilab came to maturity will be essential reading in the history of particle phycics and the broader history of 20th-century physics."
— Charles Thorpe, Physics Today


Acronyms and Abbreviations


1 The Call of the Frontier

PART ONE An American Dream

2 The Several Hundred GeV Accelerator, 1959–1963

3 The Berkeley Design, 1963–1965

4 Midwest Passage, 1965–1967

PART TWO A New Frontier on the Illinois Prairie

5 Wilson’s Vision

6 Constructing the Ring, 1968–1972

7 A Users’ Paradise, 1968–1978

8 Beyond the Horizon: The Energy Doubler, 1967–1978

PART THREE The Road to Megascience

9 Lederman’s Vision

10 Completing the Doubler, 1978–1984

11 Bigger Science: Experiment Strings, 1970–1988

12 Megascience Realized: Colliding Beams, 1967–1989

13 The Super Collider Affair

Epilogue: Light on the Horizon, 1989–1995

Authors’ Statements and Other Acknowledgements

Appendix: Fermilab Approved Experiments, 1970–1992