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Natural Science

American 'Big Science' Lurches as US Atom Smasher Shutdown Looms

Tevatron Shutdown

Accelerator Division head Roger Dickson, stands in front of a CockcroftWalton generator at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. a week before its scheduled shutdown. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Is "big physics" in America coming to an end?

On Friday, physicists will shut down the facility's accelerator called the Tevatron, a once-unrivaled atom smasher that has been eclipsed by its European successor, the Large Hadron Collider, buried beneath the border of France and Switzerland.

For some at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, 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.

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

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.

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 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 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 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."

It's difficult to overstate the role Fermilab played in the world of high-energy particle physics, Dmitri Denisov, a Fermilab scientists. told

“Many exciting measurements and discoveries were made here which helped finalize the model by which we explain the behavior of elementary particles,” Denisov said. “That’s over 1,000 papers published, over 1,000 Ph.D.s defended along with the participation of 40 countries around the world.

It was at the 6,800-acre 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.

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.

“A large fraction of U.S. physicists will move to CERN’s LHC, while a substantial number will continue with new neutrino and energy frontier experiments at Fermilab,” Denisov says.

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 said. "It's the next frontier."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.