…And with it, our chance to beat the Europeans to the quantum punch: the confirmation of the Higgs Boson — the mysterious particle that bestows mass unto all other particles. It’s one of physic’s biggest “prizes”, but, it seems that our Dept. of Energy couldn’t come up with the extra 35 million to keep the lab’s collider — and its record of smashing success — going through 2012. The lab’s collider costs about 50 million USD per year to run (Fermilab itself offered to kick down 15 million). It’s a big blow to Big Science in the U.S.
Located outside Batavia, Illinois, Fermilab’s Tevatron collider has been smashing protons into anti-protons for more than a quarter century and has been instrumental in validating the predictions of many aspects of the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics (e.g., the discovery of the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ quarks).
And for reasons that are peculiar to the Tevatron’s design, it could just have the edge over its competition and possibly catch a trace of the elusive boson within the next year, or two …. It would be a most prestigious achievement and the final validation of the Standard Model.
However, in a recent news report by Adrian Cho for Science (January 14, 2011), DOE Office of Science head William Brinkman stated that the “current budgetary climate is very challenging…” and noted that a source for additional funding “has not been identified.” Translation: the Tevatron’s funding will be completely cut. The particle smashing will cease sometime this September.
The hunt for ever-more-exotic particles has been the intense focus of a friendly, but highly competitive, rivalry between the U.S. physics community and its European counterpart (in truth, both communities share scientists and work). In that rivalry, two big players in the particle collider game emerged: Fermilab, in the US, and CERN in Switzerland (now home to the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a more recent “upgrade”)), and both have made important discoveries and contributions to the field — well before the recent start up of the LHC.
But since 2008, the LHC, with its more powerful collision energies, has moved to the fore in particle physics. The LHC is predicted to be the machine that will find (assuming that it’s real) the Higgs Boson, the so-called ‘god particle’*, but due to a continuous series of magnet malfunctions, the LHC has not lived up to its full potential just yet.
Indeed, European physicists had decided to shut down the LHC for repairs for the entire 2012 calendar year (good or bad news for the end-of-the-worlders). That is, until they got wind of the news of Tevatron’s canceled funding. Why should this matter to the European;s with their more powerful atom smasher?
Well, it goes back to the Tev’s design. Two factors come into play here: 1] the lower energies of the Tev (which still attain energies of 1 trillion electron volts, 1TeV) , 2] the fact that the Tev collides protons with anti-protons. The LHC is superior to the Tevatron in terms of the energies that its proton beams can attain (velocities and collisions). However, indirect estimations of the mass of the Higgs Boson fall within a range of between 120 and 140 times the mass of a proton — a mass that supporters say could be more readily detected with the “lower energies” and “cleaner” hits (i.e., less scattering of particles, post collision) of the Tevatron.
Further, because the Tevatron uses the proton-anti-proton combination, some physicists assert that this allows scientists to probe more deeply into the coupling mechanism between any new particle and known ones — thereby proving whether it’s really the Higgs. Proton-proton collisions are considered inferior for probing these (predicted) particle couplings.
Since the de-funding of the might-have-been Super Collider in Texas back in the late 1980’s, the cutting edge of advanced particle physics has moved to Europe, save for a few, older-generation particle colliders here in the U.S., chief of which is Fermilab’s Tevatron.
Now, of course, the Europeans are contemplating delaying the LHC shutdown until 2013, giving it another year to hunt for the Higgs.
The Tevatron was completed in 1983 at a cost of $120 million, a mere fraction of the cost of the LHC (even in today’s dollars; the LHC cost around 5 billion, with repairs). Apart from its 6.28 km (3.9 mile) diameter ring structure (to speed along the super energized protons), and its 774 niobium-titanium (NbTi) superconducting, dipole magnets, the main components of the Tevatron are the 5000 ton Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) and the DO detector (both are also the names for two respective particle experiments).
Particle experiments may still be conducted with the Tevatron in the future, or, sadly, it could be sold for parts.
Particle colliders such as the Tevatron and the LHC are the two most powerful tools that Science has with which to explore the fundamental stuff that composes our cosmos. Ironically, for such a religious nation, the U.S. has now decided that Heaven (or God particles) can wait.
To learn more about the state of high-energy physics in the U.S., visit the Fermilab website.
* In fact, the Higgs boson may have already been discovered, only buried within many trillions of bits (per second) of “raw” data. A few days’ worth of proton smashing will generate data requiring over two years to completely analyze.
Top image: The Tevatron (background) and Main Injector rings
Other images: public domain