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Mysterious giant magnet attracts rock-star status

  • A worker walks underneath the electromagnet as it moves down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

    A worker walks underneath the electromagnet as it moves down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

  • A worker walks underneath the electromagnet as it moves down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

    A worker walks underneath the electromagnet as it moves down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

  • In this undated photo provided by Brookhaven National Laboratory, a bird’s-eye view of the Muon g-2 ring, 50-foot electromagnet, is ready to be transported across the Brookhaven National Laboratory site on New York's Long Island. The gigantic electromagnet ended its tedious journey early Friday, July 26, 2013, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, near Chicago, where it will be used to study blazing-fast particles. (AP Photo/Brookhaven National Laboratory)

    In this undated photo provided by Brookhaven National Laboratory, a bird’s-eye view of the Muon g-2 ring, 50-foot electromagnet, is ready to be transported across the Brookhaven National Laboratory site on New York's Long Island. The gigantic electromagnet ended its tedious journey early Friday, July 26, 2013, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, near Chicago, where it will be used to study blazing-fast particles. (AP Photo/Brookhaven National Laboratory)

  • Onlookers watch and take photos as the electromagnet passes by on Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday.  The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

    Onlookers watch and take photos as the electromagnet passes by on Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

  • The electromagnet moves down Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill., Friday, July 26, 2013 on its way to Batavia’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory will use the gadget to study blazing-fast particles.  (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

    The electromagnet moves down Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill., Friday, July 26, 2013 on its way to Batavia’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory will use the gadget to study blazing-fast particles. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

  • The electromagnet moves down Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill., Friday, July 26, 2013 on its way to Fermilab. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

    The electromagnet moves down Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill., Friday, July 26, 2013 on its way to Fermilab. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

  • The electromagnet begins to move down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday.  The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

    The electromagnet begins to move down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

  • The electromagnet begins to move down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday.  The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

    The electromagnet begins to move down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

  • The electromagnet sits on a special platform in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 before the final move of the electromagnet to its new home outside Chicago on Friday.  The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

    The electromagnet sits on a special platform in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 before the final move of the electromagnet to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

  • The electromagnet sits on a special platform in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 before the final move of the electromagnet to its new home outside Chicago on Friday.  The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

    The electromagnet sits on a special platform in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 before the final move of the electromagnet to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

  • The electromagnet moves down Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill., Friday, July 26, 2013 on its way to Batavia’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory will use the gadget to study blazing-fast particles.  (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

    The electromagnet moves down Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill., Friday, July 26, 2013 on its way to Batavia’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory will use the gadget to study blazing-fast particles. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

  • In this undated photo provided by Brookhaven National Laboratory, a bird’s-eye view of the Muon g-2 ring, 50-foot electromagnet, is ready to be transported across the Brookhaven National Laboratory site on New York's Long Island. The gigantic electromagnet ended its tedious journey early Friday, July 26, 2013, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, near Chicago, where it will be used to study blazing-fast particles. (AP Photo/Brookhaven National Laboratory)

    In this undated photo provided by Brookhaven National Laboratory, a bird’s-eye view of the Muon g-2 ring, 50-foot electromagnet, is ready to be transported across the Brookhaven National Laboratory site on New York's Long Island. The gigantic electromagnet ended its tedious journey early Friday, July 26, 2013, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, near Chicago, where it will be used to study blazing-fast particles. (AP Photo/Brookhaven National Laboratory)

  • A worker walks underneath the electromagnet as it moves down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
  • A worker walks underneath the electromagnet as it moves down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
  • In this undated photo provided by Brookhaven National Laboratory, a bird’s-eye view of the Muon g-2 ring, 50-foot electromagnet, is ready to be transported across the Brookhaven National Laboratory site on New York's Long Island. The gigantic electromagnet ended its tedious journey early Friday, July 26, 2013, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, near Chicago, where it will be used to study blazing-fast particles. (AP Photo/Brookhaven National Laboratory)
  • Onlookers watch and take photos as the electromagnet passes by on Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday.  The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
  • The electromagnet moves down Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill., Friday, July 26, 2013 on its way to Batavia’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory will use the gadget to study blazing-fast particles.  (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
  • The electromagnet moves down Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill., Friday, July 26, 2013 on its way to Fermilab. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
  • The electromagnet begins to move down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday.  The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
  • The electromagnet begins to move down Butterfield Road in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 enroute to its new home outside Chicago on Friday.  The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
  • The electromagnet sits on a special platform in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 before the final move of the electromagnet to its new home outside Chicago on Friday.  The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
  • The electromagnet sits on a special platform in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Thursday, July 25, 2013 before the final move of the electromagnet to its new home outside Chicago on Friday.  The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
  • The electromagnet moves down Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill., Friday, July 26, 2013 on its way to Batavia’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The electromagnet is 50 feet wide, weighs more than 15 tons and has taken a month to transport 3,200 miles from New York to Illinois. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory will use the gadget to study blazing-fast particles.  (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)
  • In this undated photo provided by Brookhaven National Laboratory, a bird’s-eye view of the Muon g-2 ring, 50-foot electromagnet, is ready to be transported across the Brookhaven National Laboratory site on New York's Long Island. The gigantic electromagnet ended its tedious journey early Friday, July 26, 2013, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, near Chicago, where it will be used to study blazing-fast particles. (AP Photo/Brookhaven National Laboratory)

It skipped tolls. It had a Twitter hashtag and a GPS tracker. It even posed for photos with groupies.

The 50-foot-wide, 15-ton electromagnet attracted a sensation wherever it went during its slow, delicate 3,200-mile journey from New York to suburban Chicago. The land-and-sea trip culminated when scientists threw a rock star’s welcome for the mysterious, shrink-wrapped cargo yesterday as it arrived at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to help study blazing-fast particles.

“‘Oh look, they found a flying saucer!’ ” retired software developer Chris Otis recalled thinking when he saw the massive, disc-shaped device when it made a pit stop in a Costco parking lot.

Otis used his cell phone to take photos as he and others marveling the contraption wondered what would happen if it suddenly went live.

“I figure somebody at Fermilab is going to plug the damn thing in, turn it on and my watch is going to stop running, everybody’s hearing aides are going to sail across the room,” Otis said with a laugh. “I have no idea. Turn it on and the Martians will home in on it.”

Fermilab officials, however, plan to use the magnet in a physics experiment called Muon g-2 that will study subatomic particles at their lab in Batavia, outside Chicago. The experiment will study the properties of muons, subatomic particles that live only 2.2 millionths of a second.

The results of the experiment could create new discoveries in the realm of particle physics, said Chris Polly, manager of the Muon g-2 project at Fermilab.

The hulking magnet is a hand-me-down from New York, where it was built in the 1990s with aluminum and steel by scientists at the Brookhaven National Lab on eastern Long Island. It has superconducting coils inside and, at the time it was built, was the largest electromagnet in the world.

Brookhaven scientists no longer had a need for the electromagnet, and shipping it out to the Midwest for about $3 million was cheaper than the alternative. Constructing an entirely new electromagnet could have cost as much as $30 million, Polly estimated.

In any case, at least they didn’t have to pay tolls on the parts of the journey that took it over land.

“We’ve been assured that we don’t have to pay tolls, but we’re waiting to see if we get the violation notice in the mail. It’d be pretty hard to dispute,” said Fermilab spokesman Andre Salles, who was among the magnet’s traveling companions for about 10 days of the trip.

Moving the thing, however, was in some ways as complicated and as delicate a maneuver as building it. It could not be taken apart or twisted more than about an eighth of an inch without irreparably damaging the coils, Polly said.

It started its trip in late June, floating by barge down the East Coast into the Gulf of Mexico – where it outran a tropical depression – then up the Mississippi River, where it was photographed drifting past St. Louis’s arch on its way into Illinois.

“We had to hurry up and get going through the Gulf of Mexico and really have the tugboat pour it on,” Terry Emmert Jr., vice president of Emmert International, said while recalling the race to avoid the storm. His company moved the magnet across the country.

Earlier in the journey, it spent almost a week docked in Norfolk, Va., because of bad weather, but the team traveling with it found a welcome diversion.

“The port happened to be across the street from a minor league baseball stadium, so the barge crew spent the whole week there,” Salles said.

Just south of Chicago, it was hauled out of the water and strapped onto a specially made 16-axel flatbed truck for its final leg. It traveled at a mere 5 to 15 mph, with a behemoth bumper sticker informing puzzled onlookers that it was “Driving discovery in particle physics.”

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