Saturday, June 21, 2008

Fine country for old men

This is my third summer at Argonne National Laboratory; each time I enter its gates I feel as if I am going back in time thirty years. Is it the buildings, the people or both? Argonne began to take shape after the Second World War as nuclear energy research was wisely moved from its location at the University of Chicago. Buildings have been added over the years; but until recently they have all followed the same drab low, red-brick style. I work in 205 which is the home of the historical Chemical Engineering Technology Division (CMT - always curious as to how CMT derives from that name), though a reorganization late last year has the name changed to Chemical Science and Engineering (CSE). Outwardly little has changed. The interior of 205 is fantastically drab and depressing; not a single cent has been spent on decor or upkeep. The floors, wall coverings and furniture are ancient (there are apparently some WWII surplus desks floating around), dull and sterile and appear to have never been subjected to rehabilitation. The lavs are a delight to anyone interested in WC archeology, though perhaps less inviting to those who enjoy their evacuations in modern shiny porcelain. I wondered if it was just me so I shared my observations with my office mate, who joined Argonne about five years ago from Northwestern. She admitted to being in culture shock for about six months after arriving from the comparative luxury and modernity of NU; and she had been a graduate student.

A fascinating feature of 205 is the haphazard layout of labs. There is no rhyme or reason to it; the labs belonging to the various groups are randomly dotted throughout the building making lengthy treks along corridors from one to another part of the routine. Occasionally one is required to ascend an ancient grey iron staircase into a gloomy attic where will be revealed a secret room containing perhaps an NMR spectrometer or XRD machine.

The walls of 205 are hung with rows of aging black and white portraits of its storied engineers and scientists. They are stereotypes of the fifties scientist: male, short hair, tie, glasses. One looks up and finds the living members of 205 to be little different from the faces staring down from the walls; in some cases they are the same ones. Argonne is an aging population: too old, too white and too male, or so it seems. Because of, or maybe in spite of all this, Argonne is a center of basic research across many scientific frontiers. The cracked avocado tiles in the lavs not withstanding, my annual exposure to its inner workings are a rewarding experience.

1 comment:

Snipper "Book Zeller" said...

Well there is always the brand spaking new Hadron collider set to be operating in August. But becareful, many people fear it will swallow the earth. Given the problem's the world is facing, I question the headline it was listed under...