Lights out at the smasher

It has been a sad countdown toward the closure of the Tevatron, the atom smasher at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Money is the main reason that the four-mile long particle accelerator is going dark tomorrow, on September 30, 2011.

The shutdown will be streamed live on Friday, Sept 30 at 2 pm Central Time.

In a letter to employees back in January, Fermilab director Pier Oddone told staff that the “present budgetary” climate stopped the Department of Energy from obtaining funds to keep the Tevatron running. Protons and antiprotons can now no longer smack into one another there, telling stories about their own qualities and helping researchers find new subatomic particles.

Tevatron Ring with Fermilab’s Wilson Hall in background.
Image: courtesy Fermilab.

The Tevatron, completed in 1983, cost $120 million to build as part of Fermilab, which was constructed in 1967.The Guardian’s Jon Butterworth mentions a visual tribute to the Tevatron, and a bike ride, by artist Maria      Scileppi and Tevatron physicist Rob Snihur. The film is here and background about it here.Dennis Overbye wrote his tribute to the Tevatron in New York Times in January.

The Tevatron’s closing is not news since Oddone sent out his note in January announcing the end. Although the lab heard about this funding issue in January, rumblings probably reached the scientists sooner.

One of the greatest Tevatron hits was to help scientists discover the top quark in 1995. The top quark is the third in a trio next to the up quark and the down quark. Here is Fermilab’s timeline of Tevatron’s achievements.

As Adrian Cho points out in Science, the Tevatron has fans but there is also lukewarm praise, in which the Tevatron is called a “solid” player. Other researchers wish that research there had focused more on W and Z bosons, the latter having the ability to change into a top quark.

Jon Butterworth wrote about the closing, saying that it had made “the most precise measurements” of the mass W boson and much more, adding that particle physics without the Tevatron would be a discipline with “a lot of very big gaps.”

Around 2,000 people work at Fermilab, which is run by a consortium of universities in the U.S, Canada, Japan, and Italy. And around 1,200 scientists have been doing experiments with the Tevatron.

According to Business Insider, the closure of Tevatron means “1,200 physicists are out of a job.” That seems a hard calculation to make right now, as many researchers are transferring their work to the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva, Switzerland.

Two Fermilab teams, DZero and CDF, have used the Tevatron to explore interactions of protons and anti-protons at high energies and will continue to plow through their data. 

Blogger ZapperZ wrote back in January that the Tevatron’s closure means the end to the hunt there for the Higgs boson, also called the God particle. Despite the impending closure, researchers have been fiercely hunting the Higgs. Today’s ZapperZ post highlights that Fermilab scientists have cooked up new plans. The researchers have pitched their Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment to better understand dark matter and mysterious neutrinos.

As the scientists explain, according to the Standard Model of Particle Physics, neutrinos are not supposed to have mass, but research has shown that they do. And neutrino interactions are not in agreement with matter-antimatter symmetry. Mysterious indeed.

The scientists propose to revamp a gold mine and send Fermilab-produced neutrinos through the Earth to a large underground detector in South Dakota. As they hunt for funding, the researchers are now pitching their idea to policymakers. Let’s see what the current budgetary climate holds for them.

Documentary filmmaker Clayton Brown has called Tevatron “the cantankerous engine-that-could,” an “ugly but appealing underdog” that made European physicists curse and sweat, since the race was on to find the Higgs particle. But he also says that scientists are not weepy eyed about Tevatron’s closure.

His film about the scientists and technicians, Atom Smashers, gives a sense of what the work was like and documents the scientists’ passionate attitudes. The film ran in the PBS series Independent Lens.

The Tevatron is supposed to cede to the Large Hadron Collider and Oddone has said that Fermilab is now set to remain “a very strong part of the” LHC project.

The scientists at Fermilab have been trying to beat their colleagues in Switzerland to the punch before they began using the LHC to look for the Higgs. Now, the researchers cannot use the Tevatron to do so anymore. But the Higgs remains in hiding as the LHC faces a bundle of its own technical problems.

Posted on September 29, 2011, in High energy physics, Physics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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