Ah, Tevatron, we hardly knew ye. Fermilab's signature particle accelerator, which debuted in 1985, is nearing the end of a very fruitful life.
Monday morning, physicist Lisa Randall (@lirarandall) tweeted, "Very sad. Tevatron will be turned off at end of year. All eyes on LHC for Higgs discovery and more." And within hours, Fermilab and William Brinkman, director of the Department of Energy's Office of Science, confirmed the news.
In November, we reported that the Department of Energy's High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) had recommended extending the Tevatron's operation for another three years, through 2014, but that recommendation was contingent upon finding additional funding.
"Unfortunately, the current budgetary climate is very challenging and additional funding has not been identified," Brinkman wrote in his official letter to HEPAP chair Melvyn Shochet. Count the Tevatron among the many victims of a tight economy.
Over at Cosmic Variance, Fermilab physicist John Conway gives a nice little history lesson for those unfamiliar with the Tevatron's rich scientific heritage:
The dream for a superconducting proton synchrotron at Fermilab goes back to at least 1976, when it began to become clear that the interesting mass range to explore in order to understand the weak interaction would be around 100 GeV. The lab was engaged in a wide range of fixed target experiments, using the Fermilab Main Ring proton synchrotron as its workhorse, and in 1977 the b (or bottom) quark was discovered there. This meant there had to be a top quark, as well as very massive (80-100 GeV) W and Z bosons.
CERN beat Fermlab to the W and Z bosons, but Fermilab came back strong with its discovery of the top quark. And lately it's been giving the LHC a run for its money, inching towards pinpointing the Higgs boson, although Conway acknowledges the machine is unlikely to make a discovery before its slated shutdown in October.
That's when the Tevatron will join the rest of the "semi-retired" particle accelerators in the world — over 15,000 in all.
I say "semi-retired," because even though they're no longer being used for probing the energy frontiers of particle physics, many have found a rich afterlife in scientific, medical and industrial applications — especially the synchrotron (x-ray) and neutron sources. That's because they offer complementary methods for probing atoms, molecules and materials, at different depths, sizes, and time scales. Some examples:
Synchrotrons, such as those at Argonne National Lab, Brookhaven National Lab, Berkeley National Lab, and SLAC, are fantastic tools for studying how metals fatigue at the molecular level over time — knowledge that could lead to safer bridges and similar large structures.
They are also being used to study protein structure, in drug development, and to analyze the mechanisms of such diseases as cancer, autism, and obesity.
Synchrotron radiation is proving to be a fantastic tool for analyzing archaeological objects, bringing a lost manuscript of Archimedes to light, and offering a stunning 3D x-ray image of a fossil of Archaeopteryx, a transitionary species between dinosaurs and their bird descendants. This new technique enabled experts to see previously unseen details, including soft tissue that once surrounded the bones.
And don't forget the use of synchrotrons to study photosynthesis to build more efficient solar cells, or to shed light on the role of free radicals in our atmosphere, or to develop better carbon capture techniques.
Then there are the neutron sources: proton accelerators that give off neutrons as a byproduct when the protons hit the target (neutron spallation). Since neutrons, unlike x-rays, are sensitive to magnetism, these sources are ideal for identifying precise positions of hydrogen atoms in proteins; exploring the Earth's interior (and similar high-pressure environments); developing "spintronics" and other high-density digital storage technologies; and improving technologies for hydrogen storage and fuel cells.
It will be fascinating to see if the Tevatron finds its own special kind of "afterlife."
© 2012 Discovery Channel