The powering down of Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator on Friday marked the end of a quarter-century of US dominance in high-energy particle physics.
The Tevatron, which accelerates and collides protons and antiprotons in a 6.28km underground ring, has been replaced by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) under the French-Swiss border, which began operating in March last year.
Physicists at the US lab will now turn to smaller, more focused projects, such as building the most intense proton beam, as they pass the high-energy physics baton to the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) bigger, better atom smasher.
“Nothing lasts forever at the edge of science,” said Pier Oddone, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. “We need to move on to those aspects of physics where we can put our mark.”
Oddone said Europe has outspent the US by a factor of three, and the US now has to be very clever and define very carefully how it uses its resources.
“I think we can maintain a leadership position in the world. We are going to not be where we were 30 years ago where we led in every domain of particle physics, but we are going to lead in a narrower domain,” he said in a telephone interview.
The highest-profile project on that front is an effort to confirm the startling discovery last week at CERN of particles that move faster than the speed of light.
It now falls to scientists at Fermilab to confirm or disprove that as part of its MINOS — Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search — experiment.
In its near 26-year run, the Tevatron has taught many lessons about how to build and manage an accelerator of its size and complexity, and these have played a major role in the construction of the 27km LHC ring at CERN.
“We built this machine to discover how the world is put together,” Oddone said. “It was a very daring machine in its time.”
Tevatron’s shining achievement was the discovery in 1995 of the top quark, the heaviest elementary particle known to exist.
The building of the Tevatron made contributions to the US economy by bolstering the fledgling industry for superconducting cable to meet the Tevatron’s need for 68,000kg of superconducting wire.
And while scientists largely believe the machine has outlived its useful life, lack of funding was the final blow for the Tevatron after the US Department of Energy decided not to spend the US$35 million needed to extend the Tevatron’s operation through 2014.
As a result, many top US physicists will continue research at a remote operation center that Fermilab has set up for scientists to monitor experiments at CERN. Others will relocate to Europe.
“We are whores to the machines. We will go to wherever the machines are to do our science,” said Rob Roser, co-spokesman for CDF, one of the two detectors that used the Tevatron.