29 unreal images from a man who's spent 29 years inside a legendary physics lab

Reidar hahn fermilab photographer standing on a mountainFermilabReidar Hahn, ‘the physics photographer’.

Seven years into his career as a newspaper photographer, Reidar Hahn had grown tired of hustling at all hours of the day and night.

“I was doing sports, chasing ambulances, chasing firetrucks. I was also responsible for a fashion section. I did everything,” Hahn told Business Insider.

So when he heard about a job opening for a photographer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) nearly three decades ago — then home of the planet’s most powerful atom smasher, the Tevatron — he applied.

A little while later, he was hired at the Batavia, Illinois, government laboratory, where he got a front-row seat as the lab’s renowned physicists confirmed the existence of dark energy, identified what was then the farthest-away object ever observed, and constructed massive, complex experiments unlike anything else in the world.

Hahn has been shooting at the lab full-time since 1987, prompting Symmetry Magazine, a publication funded by the Department of Energy, to dub him “the physics photographer“.

Business Insider recently caught up with Hahn and asked him to share a few of his 29 favourite shots from the past 29 years of his career.

Disclosure: The author of this post held a summer internship with the Fermilab communications office in 2006 and has watched Hahn work first-hand.

'I've been taking pictures since I was about 8 years old,' says Hahn.

The interior of a beam tube -- a crucial part of particle accelerators -- being prepared to receive a thin coating of metal. The tube will eventually be connected to other tubes and placed under a vacuum. (2011)

'When I was a newspaper photographer I always liked coming to (Fermilab) on assignment. '

A giant particle detector component is trucked from Brookhaven National Laboratory to Fermilab against the backdrop of a Midwestern storm. (2013)

'There was always something new on the horizon, some new solution to a big problem.'

Sensitive devices called photomultiplier tubes are cold-tested in a vat of liquid nitrogen for the MicroBooNE neutrino detector. 'They see very small amounts of light inside a detector that's filled with liquid argon,' Hahn said. (2011)

'So when they told me about an opening for a lab photographer, I jumped.'

A view from inside the main injector tunnel, which was formerly used in the Tevatron -- a 2-mile-circumference atom smasher. 'Today we use it to make the world's most intense beam of neutrinos, which are sent underground to a mine in Minnesota,' Hahn said. (2014)

'The best part for me is that I've gotten a very good physics education.'

A 3-by-4-foot plastic scintillating panel that's used outside a particle detector. The plastic detects and helps 'veto' any stray signal, like a cosmic ray from space. 'It's a way to eliminate bad data and increase your signal-to-noise ration,' Hahn said. (1990s)

'I think my personal interest and curiosity in science drives me to take better pictures.'

Prototype light guides, which move light from particle interactions inside a detector to a photomultiplier that measures it. 'A lot of signals in particle physics are generated as light, so you have to guide that light to places where it can be read out with electronic sensors,' Hahn said. (1992)

'I ask a lot of questions. 'What does this do? Why does it look like that?''

Called a focusing horn, this component 'focuses the beam of particles that makes a neutrino beam,' Hahn said. 'We have to collide a particle beam into a target to create kaons and pions, which decay into neutrinos -- but you can't steer neutrinos, since they hardly interact with anything. So you focus the kaons and pions with the horn.' (2004)

'There are people that have been here 40 years or more, but 29 (years) is a long time.'

A portrait of Fermilab scientist Luciano Ristori by the nose cone of a detector at Fermilab. 'The wires are data cables, and right behind his head is the beam tube,' Hahn said. 2004

'When I started, scientists were still doing (particle collision) imaging wth film. High-speed electronics were rare.'

Fermilab holds physics data on tape at this robot-operated storage facility at the lab's Feynman Computing Center. (2013)

'And they have changed everything.'

A scientist holds a laser-light guide, which is used to calibrate Fermilab's MicroBooNE detector. 'Sensitive devices called photomultiplier tubes sit inside a vessel of liquid argon, and they can record rare neutrino interactions,' Hahn said. 'But they need to be calibrated.' (2013)

'The way detectors were built, their speed, their resolution, the images they produce, and of course the pace of discoveries.'

Part of an 18-inch-diameter, sensor-packed particle detector used in the Large Hadron Collider. The device was built at Fermilab and transported to CERN laboratory in Europe.

'The speed at which we're pushing electronics and computers now is mind-boggling to me.'

A specially-designed integrated circuit for a particle detector. (2014)

'My job isn't all physics, though. The first lab director was from Wyoming and being 'on the frontier' was part of his vision for the lab, so he got a herd of bison donated.'

A member of the Fermilab bison herd braves a winter storm. (2007)

'And Wilson Hall is such an iconic shape. I saw this image in my rearview image while leaving and decided I couldn't go home yet.'

Robert Wilson, Fermilab's founder and first director, helped design the building, reflecting pool, and 'Hyperbolic Obelisk' out front. (1989)

'I also do illustrations. This one was for an article about recycling helium gas, which is limited in supply on Earth but crucial for cooling experiments.'

'Those are actual helium balloons, but I pushed three pieces of wooden dowel into the ground, then Photoshopped out the dowels later on,' Hahn said. (2009)

'Physics starts with theorists. They try to come up with ideas, and experimenters to figure out ways to test their theories.'

Theoretical physicist Rakhi Mahbubani writes equations with dry erase marker on glass. (2008)

'To do that science a lot things are specially machined here or ordered because the parts needed don't exist.'

A machine drills out part of a particle detector from solid aluminium. The green fluid is a coolant similar to antifreeze. (2006)

'This is a stack of tubes for a neutrino detector. A company in Wisconsin had to extrude a special, reflective kind of PVC to make them.'

These 52-foot-long plastic extrusions were filled with oil to become part of Fermilab's NOvA neutrino detector. (2013)

'We also build a lot of specialised circuitry for detectors.'

Sensitive detector chips are assembled on a silicon wafer chip. 'It eventually gets cut up with a diamond saw,' Hahn said. 'My hand is reflected above it, with tweezers holding a single chip.' (2006)

'You can't buy this stuff off the shelf. People design them, have them made, and they come back for testing.'

A superconducting radio-frequency cavity, which is filled with liquid helium, is tested inside a vacuum chamber. 'They cool it way down and see how much power they can put into it before it fails,' Hahn said. (2015)

'Although some prototypes never get used in experiments, they still advance the field.'

A 3-inch-wide prototype for a particle detector. 'These strips would have detected particles when they passed through them,' Hahn said. (1995)

'The Dark Energy Survey camera was built here. All those little squares are CCD sensors.'

The 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam), after it was built in a clean room at Fermilab. It's now mounted in the Blanco Telescope in Chile. (2011)

'We had to make sure it could handle the movements of the telescope it was being shipped to in Chile, so they made an identical mount here.'

Fermilab scientists created a replica of the camera mount that would eventually hold DECam at the Blanco Telescope in Chile to test for proper balance. (2010)

'Some parts can't have the least bit of dust on them, or they will spark and arc.'

A technician inspects a superconducting radio-frequency cavity in a clean room. (2014)

'Art and science get all tied up together at some point.'

A particle accelerator component is prepared for a weld-inspection test. (date unknown)

'This sculpture stands in front of the lab's industrial complex. It's made out of old (particle) beam tubes.'

Wilson, also a part-time artist, designed this sculpture for the lab. 'I'm laying on my back looking up at it from inside,' Hahn said. (2009)

'There's a certain elegance to the machines because of the way they have to function.'

Particle beams are accelerated in these drift tubes, which 'speed up particles to higher and higher energies,' Hahn said. 'The particle beam goes through the center, and is shielded from radio-frequency energy outside that does the acceleration.' (1995)

'They have to perform such unique duties, they end up looking very interesting.

Five-inch-wide plastic components that make up parts of particle detectors.'It's clear in normal light, so I used ultraviolet light and a long exposure on film to make it glow by itself,' Hahn said. (1990)

'Sometimes they're beautiful.'

The original power source for Fermilab's accelerator complex, called a Cockroft-Walton generator. It zapped hydrogen gas with 750,000 electron-volts to allow the atoms to be accelerated. 'It's since been replaced with something that fits in the back of a pickup truck,' Hahn said. (2008)

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