The National Science Foundation (NSF) commissioned a 75,000-square-foot research facility with coexisting laboratories and hazardous industrial facilities to be built on the Cornell University campus. The project involved two substantial challenges: Its centerpiece would be the most powerful accelerator ever located in the heart of a university campus, and the fixed budget was small given the project’s size and complexity.
One of the primary challenges was the “energetic” nature of the accelerator—a 10-billion-volt electron synchrotron that uses a high-frequency electric field and a low-frequency magnetic field to speed up charged particles, allowing scientists to probe deep into subnuclear matter. Because of the radiation this process produces, the synchrotron had to be shielded by a barrier of earth, concrete, or steel. At the same time, the control and counting areas of the laboratory had to be suitable for human occupation and located as close to the experiment hall as possible.
At the time, the typical methods of creating such a facility were to
build the accelerator in a trench and then cover it with substantial
backfill to block radiation, or to build a heavy structure with thick
walls that could contain the radiation. Both methods were expensive.
Ian and Dr. Wilson devised a more economical approach: They located
the synchrotron under Cornell’s main athletic field, where the
soil was ideal for tunneling and for supporting the heavy foundation
necessary for the experiment hall; employed a used sewer-tunneling machine
with a 7.5-foot-diameter bore to dig a tunnel that formed an 800-foot-diameter
ring 60 feet below the surface; and constructed the accelerator within
the tunnel walls.