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MIT's LIGO Group Flees Building 20 Just Ahead of the Wrecking Ball

MIT's LIGO Group Flees Building 20 Just Ahead of the Wrecking Ball

- Contributed by David Shoemaker

Figure 1. Building 20 F Wing

Since the mid-70's, the MIT Gravitation and Cosmology Laboratory--the hub of LIGO activity on the MIT campus--has been situated in Building 20. This "historic" building was constructed during WWII to house the origins of the Research Laboratory of Electronics. The center of radar development during the war, it had an intended lifetime of only a few years. But somehow this building, procreative eyesore that it is, has continued to foster a colorful palette of inventive activities, especially those unfit for anywhere else. Apart from our lab, there are (among others) the language teaching facilities, linguistics (Noam Chomsky and cohorts), history of science (Thomas Kuhn of "Scientific Revolution" fame), Anthropology, ROTC, frog research labs, the headquarters for reconstruction of pianos at MIT, the Model Train Club, several large machine shops, and lastly a myriad of rooms occupied by students with an apparently keen understanding of the arts of lock-picking. Needless to add, wild and wondrous goings-on are evident at all hours of day and night. Figure 1 at left is a view of Building 20 F wing, housing the lab; note the High bay doors, now sealed, but once the means for shipping out balloon packages for IR measurements and slipping in MGB-GT's in need of carburetor rebuilding.

The Gravitation and Cosmology lab started out in atomic clocks and laser research, and then moved on to infrared astronomy, with balloon flights the initial medium of choice. It then nurtured the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite, in particular the spectrometer which made the definitive measurement of the background temperature and verified the Planck distribution. It also housed the fitful starts of the development of interferometric sensors for gravitational waves, including one of the first prototype interferometers, the MIT 1.5m system. The Gravitation and Cosmology lab occupies one wing of Building 20, adjacent to an anechoic chamber (ideal for naps after all-nighters) and the previous home of some acoustics labs and a recording studio on giant springs (a hotbed of rock 'n roll activity in the late 70's). A labyrinth of offices and labs, it includes the high-bay used as the shipping dock for radar back in the 40's. This latter space is the present home of the Phase Noise Interferometer (see LIGO Newsletter vol. 2, no. 2 for more on that). Featured here is a marvelous overhead crane that runs on a regular switch-yard of monorails, sort of like an upside-down version of the model train on display in another wing.

Figure 2. Baffling Plaque On Building 20

Building 20 has always been a good home to our lab. Urgent holes required in the walls to accommodate a longer lever arm, or to connect a vacuum pump to its experiment, were never further than a hefty hammer away. The one student/one office policy provided the privacy to allow otherwise hopeless graduate students to get through the general exams, or at least to fret about them in solitude. Countless bicycles and MG carburetors were rebuilt in the shop, side-by-side with someone's latest idea of the best way to mill an optical mount out of solid brass. The PDP 11/20 (upgraded to 16k of core memory) has given way to the library, with its mixture of plumbing from above and infinite tangles of ethernet. Coffee, whether of Ezekiel, Muehlner, Halpern, Dewey, or possibly more recent vintage, has been burning in the pot on the mezzanine since yesterday. Figure 2 at right shows the plaque on the principal entry to our lab from the outside; self-explanatory, in a certain sense.

But Building 20 must soon come down, and MIT must go forward (and upward too, in the sense of a new building). The Gravitation and Cosmology Lab will move in June 1998 to NW17, a former bread factory at the other pole of the campus. The new lab will occupy the basement, with offices strewn on the two floors above. The basic functionality of the present lab will be replicated in NW17, but this time with the advantage of planning: our architectural and engineering firms, SMMA and Beacon, are forcing us to realize the advantages of forethought on such issues as circulation patterns, clean rooms, the placement of floor drains, and the like.

One very important feature of the coming lab is its new high-bay space. To help us enable the next generation of LIGO interferometers, MIT is creating a high-bay space capable of housing full-scale LIGO components. In fact, in this lab will be placed a virtual copy of the vacuum system in the corner building of a LIGO site. HEPA-filtered air is provided, along with clean room finishes. The goal is to allow for the development and qualification of second-generation LIGO hardware (but more on this in a later newsletter).

The new office spaces will lack some of the charm of the Building 20 arrangement, and some compromises to modern measures must be made (e.g., shared rooms for grads and postdocs). We think though that modern amenities (like carpeted floors!) and the conviviality of our Plasma Fusion colleagues will compensate for this. We're confident that it will take only a few weeks for the perfume of burned coffee to begin making our new space feel like home. Wonder if we need to bring our mice with us?