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Argonne and Waterfall Glen

We trek the national laboratory's South Side campus in search of the future of science, our nuclear past and mysterious white deer.

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Photograph: Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory
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Photograph: Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory
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Photograph: Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne’s storied history as the site of one of the world’s first nuclear reactions makes it ripe for myth. Case in point: The 1,500 acres and surrounding Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve harbor a breed of white deer that some attribute to the national laboratory’s furtive science experiments.

In fact, Argonne welcomes anyone to visit its research facilities in a customizable tour (call 630-252-5562 for an appointment) of some of its nearly 100 buildings, ranging from transportation to nanoscience. Admittedly, I wasn’t much of a science student in school, so I asked for a general tour, which includes car and foot portions to a few locations.

After a half-hour commute on the Stevenson (I-55) from central Chicago (also accessible by Metra’s Burlington/Santa Fe line to Westmont to Pace 715), I arrived at the Information Center(Cass Ave and Northgate Rd, Darien) and met my volunteer guide Dick, a retired chemistry teacher with more than 40 years of tours under his belt. Following a fairly quick sign-in process (it’s more extensive for non-citizens), we hopped in Dick’s car and rode to the first stop, an introductory exhibit rehashing the South Side’s nuclear past. Enrico Fermi’s 1942 chain reaction on U. of C.’s Stagg Field leads up to last year’s shuttering of the area’s final nuclear pile.

Our next stop: the Advanced Photon Source—a giant X-ray machine. We observed the two-thirds-mile-long, hoop-shaped structure from a window as Dick broke down the essentials. Around 35 beamlines (the brightest X-ray beams in the Western Hemisphere) each enter into a research station, where a team of scientists conducts an experiment. About 3,500 scientists—most chosen through a peer application process—used APS last year alone. Fun projects have included analysis of Beethoven’s hair, which revealed the composer likely died of lead poisoning.

From there we looked out over the stunning wooded campus. The tree-filled glacially carved ridges are home to roughly 300 species of mammals, including the white deer, brought from overseas to a wealthy man’s nearby estate about a century ago. Dick identified campus facilities, including the Blue Gene/P supercomputer, which does in three days what my MacBook could accomplish in a thousand years. Nearby cooling towers let off dramatic puffs of steam. A tiny pavilion by contemporary artist Dan Graham brings in art-loving tourists from around the world, but most structures—built just after WWII—resemble brick army barracks, their halls lined with old radiators and Steelcase shelves full of machinery parts.

Our last stop at ATLAS brought us back to what Dick referred to as “basic stuff.” No Beethoven, just studies on instable nuclei. A long beamline, resembling an assembly line, ends in the alien-looking Gammasphere. Essentially a microscope, the device became famous in the 2003 movie The Hulk as a radiation machine that turned Bruce Banner green.

Ending on an appropriate science-fiction note, I left the mind-blowing campus to stretch my legs in the doughnut-shaped Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve that encircles Argonne. Entering at the Outdoor Education Camp trailhead (no registration needed), I took a short jaunt to the park’s namesake manmade falls, quaint masonry from the 1930s covered by a gurgling brook. I continued south for a mile to a bridge over Sawmill Creek, then southwest along the BNSF railroad to a scenic overlook and St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Rather than continue on the 10-mile loop, I circled back. The fall walk was visually serene, but obstructed with humming mechanical noises. Not altogether unpleasant, the noise emanated from the train tracks and not—as rumor would have it—Argonne’s reputed nuclear experiments.

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