Martin Luther King, atomic energy, open housing, and DuPage County

In 1967, the federal government had selected a site in southwestern DuPage County, Illinois, on the land of the small community of Weston, for a new National Atomic Laboratory. Dozens of locales across the country had applied, including places with existing concentrations of physics facilities and scientists. As the government worked to confirm and develop the site, in June 1967 protestors marched to Weston against the selection of the site because of open housing problems in nearby communities and the State of Illinois. Connected to the marchers? Martin Luther King, Jr.

The DuPage County site came through an interesting political process (see the book Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience) and the selection offered an opportunity for civil rights activists to pressure the state of Illinois and local governments, particularly in light of the lack of change after the Chicago Freedom Movement and Martin Luther King’s protests in Chicago in 1966. (See, for example, the subsequent push for open housing in nearby Naperville as detailed by Ann Durkin Keating in “Behind the Suburban Curtain.”)

King announced a rally for June 1967. Organizers talked of a “tent-in” and marchers had plans to walk from a nearby religious retreat center in Warrenville (where the Chicago Tribune reported they faced hecklers) to the Weston site. According to the Tribune, King made a short visit to the tented protestors on June 23:

Dr. King, a leader of the Chicago Freedom movement which is sponsoring the “tent-in,” spoke to the dozen campers and a battery of newsmen and called the Weston protest a necessity to keep civil rights alive.

Asked by newsmen if he was losing support for his civil rights programs, King said:

“I don’t know how much support we are losing, but I will say the vast majority of white Americans are against us. We hope the government will hear our pleas and our cries.”…

Dr. King spent about 15 minutes with the campers, who had pitched their tents Thursday afternoon in an effort to urge Congress not to approve the Atomic Energy commission’s request for the Weston accelerator.

The Chicago Tribune ran a small article on June 25 summarizing the march:

An estimated 350 civil rights demonstrators marched without incident yesterday into west suburban Weston to protest the Atomic Energy commission’s decision to build a proton accelerator there…

In Weston, Raby and McGermott addressed the crowd from a sound truck. “We are beginning to see the end of the 1964 civil rights act,” said Raby. “The Illinois state legislature, in failing to pass an open housing law, has demonstrated its total disregard for the laws of the federal government,” Raby said.

King did not attend the march. Yet, lending his name and effort to the protest helped publicize open housing issues facing Illinois suburbs as well as many other communities across the country. Furthermore, his efforts in suburbs are not widely known  as compared to efforts in large cities in which he spent significant amounts of time.

Open housing officially came through Congress in 1968 after MLK was assassinated. The Fermilab facility broke ground in December 1968 and operated as a premier science facility for decades. DuPage County continued to have a reputation of few minorities for decades and a long-running lawsuit alleged exclusionary zoning in the county and the county public housing authority faced issues. And while increasing numbers of minorities have moved to the suburbs in recent decades, the suburbs can still be exclusive and exclusionary.


Chicago Tribune. 1967. “King Admits His Movement Loses Ground.” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 10.

Chicago Tribune. 1967. “Marchers Protest Weston.” Chicago Tribune, June 25, 7.

Hoddeson, Lillian, Adrienne W. Kolb, and Catherine Westfall. 2008. Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.\

Johnson, Michelle Kimberly. 2016. “”Who Speaks for Chicago?” Civil Rights, Community Organization and Coalition, 1910-1971.”

Keating, Ann Durkin. 2017. “”Behind the Suburban Curtain”: The Campaign for Open Occupancy in Naperville.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 110(1):59-86.


Fermilab closes Tevatron; what’s the effect on nearby suburbs and the Chicago region?

The need for the Tevatron, a particle accelerator, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, known commonly as Fermilab, has been drastically reduced after the construction of the Large Hadron Collidor in Europe. Therefore, the Tevatron is being shut down and Fermilab is looking to transition to new areas of physics research. My question is this: what effect this will have on the nearby suburbs and the Chicago region?

The article says that several local politicians want to keep research at Fermilab going:

Fermilab will still have star quality, and the estimated 2,300 scientists there will continue playing a critical role in particle physics. The lab could even re-emerge a few decades from now as the leader, officials say.

However, one daunting hurdle remains: obtaining what may be hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding that officials say is needed to guide the lab’s work into the next generation of research via two projects, known as Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment and Project X…

Over the decades, the cost of upgrades at Fermi could reach hundreds of billions of dollars, a frightening prospect in this troubled economy. But U.S. Reps. Randy Hultgren of Winfield and Judy Biggert of Hinsdale said the funding is crucial. On Wednesday, the two Republican congressmen held a round table on the underground particle-physics program at Fermi.

“I think basic science is the most important thing that will help us to compete in the global economy,” Biggert said. “We have to realize that basic science really drives industry and creates the jobs our children and grandchildren will enjoy.”

I assume most places would want to get federal money and remain competitive globally. The Chicago region, as a global city, needs research facilities like these.

But what about the local jobs and the greater impact on nearby suburbs? Several researchers, including Michael Ebner, have suggested that Fermilab played a crucial role in the development of the area. This 2006 overview of Naperville in Chicago sums up this perspective:

With the creation in 1946 of Argonne National Laboratory (near Lemont, about 15 miles southeast of Naperville) and the establishment, in 1967, of the National Accelerator Laboratory-now called Fermilab-in Batavia (about 15 miles northwest of town), Naperville was on its way to becoming “Chicago’s Technoburb,” as Lake Forest College history professor Michael Ebner later dubbed it. Bell Labs, Amoco, Nalco Chemical, NI-Gas, and Miles Laboratories were among the corporations that set up facilities in Naperville during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

In particular, Ebner argues that this facility plus Argonne National Laboratory meant that scientists and other staff moved to Naperville and then pushed for better schools. While Naperville was still relatively small in the 1950s and 1960s, this influx of educated residents gave the city a world-class educational system, helping to contribute to Naperville’s later growth. Here is one of the outcomes that could be tied to this from the Naperville District #203 website:

In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (1999 TIMSS-R), District 203 eighth graders achieved the highest score in science and sixth highest in mathematics among the 38 participating nations and consortiums worldwide.

I am somewhat skeptical of this argument. One, I’ve never seen hard figures that show how many Fermilab or Argonne researchers actually settled in Naperville. If these researchers also lived in other communities, did their school districts experience the same changes? Two, I haven’t seen evidence that these people directly influenced school changes in the community. Third, I would argue that the 1964 announcement that Bell Laboratories was locating a facility just north of Naperville was much more consequential in understanding Naperville’s growth.

Additionally, Fermilab has often been included in promotional materials as part of the Illinois Technology Research Corridor, providing the research and development foundation to the many notable corporations that have located along I-88 between Oak Brook and Aurora. This article from summer 2011 briefly recognized the impact of the corridor:

While the top-five states were unchanged from 2010, rankings 6 to 10 saw a few surprise movers. Illinois gained 8 spots (14/6) from last year, bumping Pennsylvania down to 7th place. What happened?

As it turns out, Illinois’ improvement is the result of the amount of scientific grant money awarded to the state — $185 million to be exact — from the National Science Foundation to the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.

While many know the state for politics and sports, Illinois’ Technology and Research Corridor is a major scientific hub in northeastern Illinois, linking intellectual capital and corporate innovation.

Big name companies such as Motorola Solutions and Mobility, Boeing, and Telephone and Data Systems spacer among others are headquartered in Illinois in large part to benefit from the concentration of technical expertise.

I assume the state of Illinois, the city of Chicago, DuPage County, and nearby suburbs would like Fermilab to continue to be scientifically relevant as this brings in federal money, jobs, businesses, and educated residents. Whether the transition Fermilab makes to new research areas also includes these benefits for nearby communities remains to be seen.

Possible Fermilab “breakthough” illustrates statistical significance

Scientists at Fermilab may be on the verge of a scientific breakthrough regarding “a new elementary particle or a new fundamental force of nature.” There is just one problem:

But scientists on the Fermilab team say there is about a 1 in 1,000 chance that the results are a statistical fluke — odds far too high for them to claim a discovery.

“That’s no more than what physicists tend to call an ‘observation’ or an ‘indication,’ ” said Caltech physicist Harvey Newman.

For the finding to be considered real, researchers have to reduce the chances of a statistical fluke to about 1 in a million.

One of the key concepts in a statistics or social research course is statistical significance, where researchers say that they are 95% certain (or more) that their result is not just the result due to their sample or chance but that it actually reflects the population or reality. These scientists at Fermilab then want to be really sure that the results reflect reality as they want to reduce their possible error to 1 in a million.

Beyond working with the calculations, the scientists are also hoping to replicate their findings and rule out other explanations for what they are seeing:

Researchers hope that more data compiled at Fermilab will shed light on the matter, or that the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva will be able to replicate the findings. “We will know this summer when we double the data sets and see if it is still there,” said physicist Rob Roser of Fermilab, who is a spokesman for the project…

What the team must to do now, Roser said, is “eliminate all the mundane explanations.” They have been working on that, he said, and decided it was time to go public and let others know what they had found so far.

And science rolls on.