The world loses its second largest particle accelerator, America loses its ambition

(This article contains editorial commentary, which is the opinion of the author.)

FermiLab, one of the biggest particle physics labs in the country, received sad news in April. After 25 years of operation, the Tevatron, the last large particle accelerator in America and the second largest accelerator in the world, was being shut down.  And while FermiLab's staff tried to put a cheerful spin on the news, this is a somber time for the veteran research institution.

I. The End of Big, Ambitious Science in America?

In 2010 the U.S. federal budget surpassed $3.4 trillion dollars.  FermiLab earlier this year asked for $100M USD -- less than a third of a thousandth of a percent of the federal budget.  Yet it saw its request rejected by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Fermilab's Director Pier Oddone regretfully commented to The Chicago Tribune, "The present budgetary climate did not permit DOE to secure the additional funds needed to run the Tevatron for three more years.  While we would have liked to run the Tevatron for three more years, our life going forward is full of promising projects and great opportunities for major discoveries."

To the average American, $100M USD seems like a lot, but in government terms, that's pocket change.  That's part of why it's so astounding that the American government decided to terminate this marvel of engineering, which for two decades was the biggest particle accelerator in the world.

To put this in perspective the nation budgeted an estimated $15.5B USD [source] to the U.S. Drug Czar to carry out the "war on drugs", much of which goes to banning marijuana, a drug top physicians say is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.  Just a quarter of that money would be enough to fund the Tevatron for nearly 39 years.

And on that topic America incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world -- nearly 1 percent (~2 million) of the population -- at a projected cost of $80B USD or more [source] in 2010.  Of those incarcerated 70 percent were imprisoned [source] for non-violent crimes and drug offenses.  If only a quarter of those petty offenders were released for a single year, it would be pay for 140 years of Tevatron operation.

Fig. 1: The U.S. can afford to imprison more of its citizens than any other nation, but it can't afford to keep up with cutting edge research. [Source: David Sanders for The New York Times]

And then the $17B USD [source] the U.S. government handed out in 2009 to the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Pakistan.  Of these nations, Egypt has seen its government overthrown since on allegations of corruption, while Afghanistan has struggled under the weight of similar allegations of sweeping bribery and corruption.  And Pakistan has been implicated in sheltering Osama bin Laden, the world's most famous terrorist.  If just a quarter of this money was handed to the Tevatron project, it would be enough for 42 years of operations.

And then there's the countless pork barrel projects of the Obama and Bush administrations, such as the half billion dollar loan that the Obama administration handed bankrupt solar startup Solyndra, ignoring warning signs.  That money, unlikely to be recovered, could have kept the Tevatron's doors open five more years.

Former Democratic Congressman Bill Foster, currently seeking reelection to Congress worked for 22 years as a physicist at FermiLab.  He bemoans the closing.  In an interview with MSNBC he comments, "The decline of particle physics in the U.S. is really a symptom of the erratic and sometimes anti-scientific attitudes in Washington and the incompetence of Congress in managing science.  And it's sad for Batavia."

The closing of Tevatron is perhaps indicative of a greater abandonment of big, ambitious engineering, science, and manufacturing projects in America.  Sure, America still funds more research programs that any other country in the world.  But slowly, that funding is drying up, with the biggest programs finding themselves first on the chopping block

As the Chinese juggernaut creeps ever closer to seizing the lead in global GDP, America is phasing out some of its proudest research programs.  It killed the Space Shuttle.  And now it's killed America's only large particle accelerator.

II. Tevatron Changed Physics as we Know it

And oh what a marvel that accelerator was.

Stretching a four mile (6.4 km) loop underground, the accelerator was the biggest one in the world at the time of its creation, and one of the largest manmade structures in the world.  While only approximately a fourth of the length of Europe's new Large Hadron Collider, it remains an engineering marvel even two and a half decades later.  Located just east of Batavia, Illinois, the accelerator was capable of sending anti-proton and proton beams at near light speeds.  That capability held the key to solving some of the universe's most compelling mysteries.

Fig. 2: The Tevatron is today the world's second largest particle accelerator, having been passed by the LHC.  It has unlocked many subatomic secrets. [Source: FermiLab]

Long before LHC was even a thought in the imagination of physicists, the Tevatron was making major discoveries.  It was the first accelerator to create a top quark, the first to observe two different types of sigma baryon, the first to observe the "Cascade B" (Ξ
) Xi baryon, and the first to discover the Ω
, a "double strange" Omega baryon.

The Tevatron's work was so magnificent that when FermiLab saw its budget slashed in 2008, a private donor stepped in to keep the Tevatron online.  Sadly that generous contribution appears to have only prolonged the inevitable.

Tevatron diagram
Fig. 3:  The Tevatron is housed in a four mile in circumference manmade underground circular tunnel in Batavia, Illinois. [Source: FermiLab]

Sadly, for all its great discoveries, the Tevatron is closing on the eve of a hollow note.  Reports of an exotic non-Higgs boson particle discovery turned out to be likely a statistical fluke after the readings could not be confirmed in follow-up tests.

Still, there's hope that the Tevatron may find the legendary Higgs-boson before the LHC.  It's packing its final days with test runs at a frantic pace, amassing a large body of data on particle collisions.  By analyzing that data next year, FermiLab physicists believe they will be able to confirm or deny the possibility of existence of the Higgs-boson, nicknamed the "God particle" by some creative members of the media.

Of course the final results will have to be confirmed by the LHC, as there will be no more Tevatron runs to validate the discovery.  But Mr. Oddone does not begrudge CERN's particle accelerator likely getting the glory.  He comments, "It's not a competition, it's about the science.  There is some competition, but also a huge amount of collaboration.  My wish for the LHC is that it would have as wonderful and productive a life as Tevatron."

III. FermiLab Settles Into Reduced Role, but Remains Optimistic

So what's next for FermiLab?  Well the optimists at FermiLab are hoping to convince the federal government to fund the $2B USD "Project X", a neutrino accelerator which while lacking the power of other super-accelerators would produce the world's most intense neutrino beams, hence yielding the most collisions.

Project X Superconductor
Fig. 4: FermiLab wants to build a new $2B USD high-tech accelerator equipped with superconducting RF categories.  But it's unclear if it will get the funding necessary to carry through with the plan. [Source: FermiLab]

Project manager Steve Holmes comments, "The idea is to look for things that happen very rarely, and the way to find them is to create lots of examples and see if you find something.  [FermiLab has a decade worth of funded programs] but beyond that, we really need to enhance the capabilities of the complex here if we are going to have an accelerator-based particle physics program in the U.S."

Of course if the government refuses to give $100M USD, the prospect of getting 20 times that amount to build a new accelerator seems somewhat of a long shot, barring a change of heart among federal politicians.

FermiLab researchers also hope to upgrade the atomic clock, which they use in the MINOS Project to measure the speed of neutrino beams.  That could allow the lab to validate CERN's stunning claim that neutrinos -- a fermion particle -- are capable of faster than light travel.

As for the Tevatron itself, like the Space Shuttles, it's scheduled to become a historic attraction.  Pier Oddone says the accelerator will likely receive minimal maintenance in order to allow lab visitors to take in the awe-inspiringly massive manmade monument as the last stop in their tour.  Those visitors will perhaps be reminded of an era when America committed to great, expensive scientific and engineering endeavors.

Space shuttle at sunset
Fig. 5: FermiLab, like the Space Shuttle will be resigned as a museum piece, a memory of the era of big, ambitious American science. [Source: The Associated Press]

But for now that era appears to be drawing to a close.  Comments Roger Dixon, FermiLab physicist and Tevatron chief, "We're thinking of it as if we're pulling the plug on our favorite uncle."

"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." -- Michael Dell, after being asked what to do with Apple Computer in 1997

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