FOR 26 years before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was fired up in 2009 at CERN, Europe’s main particle-physics laboratory, near Geneva, the discipline was dominated by the Tevatron, the pride and joy of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, on the outskirts of Chicago (and, amusingly, next door to Geneva, Illinois). The machine was the first to smash particles at energies in excess of one trillion electron-volts—or 1TeV, whence its name. It nabbed plenty of subatomic exotica, including the top quark, a heavier cousin of the up quarks found in atomic nuclei, and made precise measurements of assorted fundamental physical parameters.
On September 30th, around 2pm central time, the venerable particle smasher will be put to rest (see article in this week’s print edition). Some scientists get philosophical about its demise. “Experiments are like lifeforms,” muses James Gates, a noted physicist and one of Barack Obama’s scientific advisers. “They have lifetimes.” They are also rendered obsolete by newer, niftier kit; for all its might, the Tevatron pales in comparison to the LHC. And keeping it alive would have meant $30m-60m less for other promising projects at Fermilab. Pier Oddone, Fermilab’s Peruvian-born director general, wouldn’t have it.
There will be no shortage of mourners. Roger Dixon, who heads Fermilab’s accelerator division, is planning a small wake after the last beam is aborted. Yet many of Fermilab’s boffins are not overcome with grief. For a start, the Tevatron detectors may not be recording any new collisions, but there are enough data to keep researchers at CDF and D-Zero busy for up to two years. They will be poring over petabytes of information for hints of, among other things, the elusive Higgs boson which is thought to be responsible for giving other particles their mass.
More importantly, a slew of new projects is in the offing. The laboratory—and, by the same token, the United States—may be throwing in the towel in the high-energy ring, admits Dr Oddone. But he believes it will soon be pushing what he dubs the “high-intensity frontier”, focusing on what is emerging as the hottest thing in physics: mysterious particles called neutrinos. These tiny beasts continue to baffle physicists, most recently by appearing to travel faster than light.
Dr Oddone has spent the past few years planning for life after the Tevatron. This has allowed Fermilab to avoid major upheaval. There will be few lay-offs: a handful of veteran researchers have agreed to early retirement and a bunch of younger ones are moving to industry, which is only too keen to snap them up. One accelerator physicist who worked on the Tevatron has accepted a position operating tabletop accelerators used in cancer therapy at a hospital in California. For specialists like this, securing a well-paid job in the private sector is not hard. Companies are eager to tap their experience and know-how. Every time a budgetary squeeze is announced firms flood Fermilab with requests (unheeded) to place job offers in its internal communications channels.
Most of the 960 or so researchers, engineers and IT professionals on Fermilab’s payroll will be manning the new projects. Some will aid their colleagues already working on prototype components for the International Linear Collider (ILC), the next big thing in physics. Congress will be reluctant to host the ILC, which would entail doling out half of the $20 billion it is expected to cost. In the sombre global economic climate it is far from assured that the ILC will get off the ground elsewhere. (Though Japan seems especially keen, having been pipped by France as the site for an experimental fusion reactor.) If it does not, however, the accelerator technology developed for it would still be used for Project X, a planned Fermilab accelerator which would produce the world’s most intense neutrino beams.
A more immediate worry is an exodus of talent not employed directly by the laboratory. The number of scientists and students from the United States and abroad who are employed by other academic institutions but do their research at Fermilab is expected to drop by several hundred over the next few years, from around 2,000 today. Many have been helping with other experiments on site. Their loss will be felt. The hope is that they will be back once new experiments come on stream towards the end of the decade. Before then, though, many researchers and doctoral candidates, who need to analyse data to gain their degree, will stay away.
Jegarakshagan R. Gokul