Image: Tevatron
AFP - Getty Images
Fermilab's 4-mile-round Tevatron accelerator ranks as the largest particle collider ever completed in the United States, but it's shutting down.
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updated 9/28/2011 5:03:18 PM ET 2011-09-28T21:03:18

Aside from the slogan on the water tower that reads "City of Energy," there is little in this leafy Chicago suburb of gently rolling hills to indicate that it has been the center of the universe when it comes to studying, well — the universe.

This is the home of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, where for a quarter-century scientists have worked on the world's most powerful particle accelerator to try to re-create conditions that existed just after the big bang.

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In the coming months, the eyes of the physics world will be focused here to see if researchers can confirm startling findings announced last week in Europe — that subatomic particles called neutrinos traveled faster than the speed of light.

But this is also a time of transition for Fermilab. On Friday, physicists will shut down the facility's accelerator called the Tevatron, a once-unrivaled atom smasher that has been eclipsed by the Large Hadron Collider, buried beneath the border of France and Switzerland.

For some in Batavia, it will be a somber moment, akin to losing a family member. Others wonder whether it signals a lack of commitment to high-level particle science on U.S. soil.

Fermilab leaders say they hope that's not the case, because there's plenty of research to keep Batavia at the cutting edge.

Key role on physics frontier
That point was underscored after researchers using equipment at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, revealed their finding that cast doubt on Einstein's special theory of relativity.

Fermilab — named after Enrico Fermi, who helped develop atomic energy at the University of Chicago — is one of only two other labs in the world that could try to replicate the work. The other, in Japan, has been slowed by the earthquake and tsunami.

Fermilab saw similar faster-than-light results in 2007 while shooting a beam of neutrinos to a lab in northern Minnesota. But the scientific significance of that observation was undercut by a large margin of error. Now the lab hopes to upgrade its own "clock" to see if it can confirm or debunk the European findings.

But long after the light-speed question has been answered, Fermilab hopes to make neutrino research one of the centerpieces of the post-Tevatron era — and retain its standing as one of the world's premier research labs.

Project X in the works
That would involve building a new accelerator to study the universe in a new way — by producing the most collisions, rather than the most powerful. The accelerator also would be capable of producing neutrino beams more intense than anywhere else to help study the particles that scientists theorize helped tip the cosmic scales toward a universe made of matter.

"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," said Steve Holmes, who's in charge of the new venture, called Project X.

The proposal could cost up to $2 billion, but has no funding yet. Even if the project goes unfunded, Fermilab has programs to last through the coming decade, "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," Holmes said.

Remote-control research
Though work that began with the Tevatron will continue in Europe, Fermilab won't be left out. Physicists in Batavia are able to conduct remote, computer-aided research on the LHC at the same time as their counterparts at that facility. And some of the 600 scientists working on the Tevatron will travel to Europe to work on the new collider, just as physicists from around the world flocked to Batavia after the Tevatron was built 28 years ago.

Still, the end is disappointing, said former Congressman Bill Foster, a physicist who worked for 22 years on the Tevatron, which sends beams of protons and anti-protons racing around a four-mile (6.4-kilometer) underground track at nearly the speed of light before smashing them together to dislodge hidden particles that make up matter.

The LHC makes a 17-mile (27-kilometer) loop and is seven times more powerful. Neither of the colliders is directly connected to the light-speed experiments. The U.S. began building an accelerator that would have been even bigger — a 54-mile (87-kilometer) Superconducting Super Collider — in Texas, but that project was canceled in 1993 when funding fell through.

"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," said Foster, a Democrat who is running again for Congress next year. "And it's sad for Batavia."

Top gun for top quarks
It's difficult to overstate the role Fermilab played in the world of high-energy particle physics. It was at the 6,800-acre (2,750-hectare) facility on restored prairie that physicists working with the Tevatron in 1995 confirmed the existence of the long-elusive top quark, the last building block of matter to be discovered.

"Now we are going levels deeper in trying to understand the most important laws that regulate the universe," said Giovani Punzi, a physicist who moved to Illinois from Italy three years ago.

But there also have been more immediate benefits from the Tevatron: Its powerful magnets led to MRIs and are used in superconducting. Neutron therapy helps treat cancer patients. And the collider has changed the way science analyzes data.

Lately, Tevatron researchers have been squeezing as many collisions as possible from the machine, hoping their years of effort still yield clues to the most prized particle of all: the theoretical Higgs boson, or "God particle," which could explain why matter has mass — and therefore the existence of everything from planets to people.

Competition plus collaboration
By early next year, Fermilab hopes to be able to conclude from Tevatron data that either the Higgs boson does not exist or that it's still a plausible theory. Even if there's evidence of the Higgs boson, it would have to be confirmed, and that would probably happen in Switzerland.

But that's OK, says Fermilab Director Pier Oddone.

"It's not a competition, it's about the science," Oddone says.

Then he pauses.

"There is some competition, but also a huge amount of collaboration," he explains, noting that Fermilab expertise helped build the LHC and the U.S. invested heavily in it. "My wish for the LHC is that it would have as wonderful and productive a life as Tevatron."

As for the Tevatron, it will probably become a stop on the lab's visitor tour, Oddone said.

But first, it will come to a quiet and respectful end.

On Friday, one of its founding physicists, Helen Edwards, will abort the beam of particles and shut down the accelerator before joining others outside the main control room for a celebration.

"We're thinking of it as if we're pulling the plug on our favorite uncle," said Roger Dixon, who heads the accelerator division at Fermilab.

That day will be bittersweet, but "it's not the end of the world," Denisov says. "It's the next frontier."

More about the frontiers of physics:

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Interactive: Inside the big bang machine

Explainer: What’s a hadron? Tour the particle zoo

  • Image: Elementary particles
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    The Standard Model of particle physics is one of science's most successful theories, enabling the development of devices ranging from light bulbs, to microwave ovens and television, to quantum computing devices. The Standard Model is also one of the oddest theories, because it lays out a dizzying menagerie of hundreds of subatomic particles. At its heart are 16 types of elementary particles ... plus at least one more mysterious particle that scientists are spending billions of dollars to detect.

    Click on "Next" to get the full rundown.

  • Quarks

    Image: Quarks and gluons
    Berkeley Lab

    Six "flavors" of quarks have been detected: up and down, charm and strange, top and bottom. Quarks are almost always found in different combinations, bound together by gluons (more on those later). Particles built up from quarks and gluons are called hadrons. The Large Hadron Collider is so named because it's a large collider that smashes hadrons together.

    Three-quark combinations fit in the category of baryons. The best-known baryons are the proton (with two up quarks and one down quark) and the neutron (with two down quarks and one up quark).

    Particles that have one quark and one antiquark fit in the category of mesons. For example, the pion, or pi meson, contains an up quark and an anti-down quark.

  • Leptons

    Image: Single electrons in helium
    Brown University

    Six "flavors" of leptons have been detected: The negatively charged electron is the best-known lepton — along with its antimatter counterpart, the positron. This photo shows the path of single electrons passing through liquid helium, in an experiment devised by Brown University researchers.

    The muon is also negatively charged, but it's about 207 times as massive as the electron. ("Who ordered that?" physicist Isidor Rabi reportedly asked.) The negatively charged tau particle is even bigger — 3,477 times as massive as the electron — but it decays into other particles in less than a trillionth of a second.

    Each of those leptons has a neutrino associated with it: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino and the tau neutrino. Neutrinos interact only weakly with other particles, and they zip through our planet virtually without a trace. Physicists only recently determined that they have mass, but there's still a great deal of mystery surrounding the ghostly particles.

  • Force carriers

    Image: Graviton
    Fermilab

    The Standard Model sets aside a category for particles that are associated with force fields. The effect of a field can be viewed as involving an exchange of such force-carrying particles.

    Four elementary force-carrying particles have been detected. The best-known force carrier is the photon — which plays a part in the electromagnetic spectrum, including visible light. The gluon binds quarks together through the strong nuclear force. The weak nuclear force involves the exchange of W and Z bosons. The W boson can carry a positive or a negative charge, while the Z boson is neutral.

    If gravity could be incorporated into the Standard Model, the force-carrying particle would be called the graviton (shown here in an artist's depiction). However, gravitons have not yet been detected, and at least for now, such particles are not accounted for in the Standard Model.

  • Bosons vs. fermions

    Image: Bosons vs. fermions
    Rice Univ. via AIP

    All force-carrying particles are bosons, but not all bosons are force carriers. The difference has to do with a property known as particle spin. Particles with a fractional spin value (for example, electrons, protons and neutrons) are fermions. Two identical fermions cannot occupy the same quantum state. This is a property that keeps electrons from collapsing into a jumble, and thus makes chemical reactions possible.

    All particles with a whole-integer spin value are classified as bosons, and such particles can occupy the same quantum state even if they're identical. The photon is the best-known type of boson.

    Even atoms can be classified as fermions and bosons. This photo shows how atom clouds of lithium-7 (bosons) and lithium-6 (fermions) behave at low temperatures. The bosons collapse into a compact cloud, while the fermions can't squeeze that closely together.

  • The mysterious Higgs

    Image: Higgs as seen by CMS
    Ianna Osborne / CERN / CMS Collection

    The Higgs boson is the only particle predicted by the Standard Model that has not yet been detected. The Higgs is the main quarry for physicists at the Large Hadron Collider. This image is a simulation of the Higgs' signature as it might appear in one of the LHC's detectors.

    The Higgs boson, named after Scottish theorist Peter Higgs, is thought to be associated with a field that endows some particles (such as the weak nuclear force's W and Z bosons) with mass, while leaving the electromagnetic force's photons without mass.

    This Higgs field may have played a role at the very beginnings of the universe: Physicists believe that at the highest energies, the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces were unified, but something led to "electroweak symmetry breaking" as the infant cosmos cooled. That would be why the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force are distinct in the current universe. The Large Hadron Collider could shed new light on this mysterious Higgs mechanism.

  • Why so complicated?

    Image: Particle zoo
    Tim Jones / McDonald Observatory / HETDEX

    Hadrons and leptons? Baryons and mesons? Fermions and bosons? Sometimes it seems as if particle physicists set up these classifications just to keep outsiders totally confused. But for researchers, these occasionally overlapping categories are useful for figuring out how different types of particles interact with each other.

    In a sense, it's as if we've been talking about the game of chess but have gotten only to the point of naming the different pieces on the board: black pieces and white ones, pawns and knights, bishops and rooks, kings and queens. The real meaning of the game comes out when you start studying how the pieces perform and interact.

    To delve into the deeper meaning of the Standard Model, you can visit The Particle Adventure at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, "A Subatomic Venture" at CERN, or Particle Physics UK.

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