Farewell, Tevatron: Fermilab’s Particle Accelerator Will Cease Operation This Year

As the U.S.'s premier particle physics machine retires, the search for the Higgs falls to the Large Hadron Collider alone

Tough budgetary times spare no one, not even the last best hope of American researchers discovering the “god particle” on their home soil. Rumblings and rumors surfaced early yesterday that Fermilab’s Tevatron would not receive an extension to continue operations until 2014, and by later in the afternoon it was confirmed by the DOE’s science office: Tevatron will cease operations before the end of this year.

“The current budgetary climate is very challenging,” the director of the DOE’s Office of Science, William Brinkman, stated in a letter to the chairman of the High Energy Physics (HEP) Advisory Panel dated January 6, in which he effectively (and reluctantly) determined that Tevatron would shut down as scheduled this year.

The friendly rivalry between Tevatron and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider had been ratcheting up recently as both are in hot pursuit of the theoretical Higgs boson, the so-called “god particle” that is thought to imbue all other particles with mass. It’s discovery would provide a huge and necessary piece of the puzzle in the Standard Model of particle physics and naturally would be a feather in any laboratory’s cap.

Tevatron discovered the b quark in 1977, meaning that a top quark must also be out there somewhere along with the W and Z bosons. CERN beat Tevatron to the W and Z bosons but Fermilab’s researchers scored a coup by charging back into the race by confirming the top quark. Since the LHC – the largest and most expensive science experiment in the known universe – went into operation, the two accelerators have been racing toward confirmation (or denial) of the Higgs’ existence.

Tevatron could still find the Higgs before it shuts down, but the odds aren’t great. That means the LHC will likely take those honors sometime in the future. But the DOE’s High Energy Physics program is by no means out of funds or short on science – their budgetary decision was based on the need to further develop other programs. The HEP program has several mandates, of which the Energy Frontier is only one.

There are plenty of U.S. researchers contributing at the ATLAS and CMS experiments at the LHC, Brinkman says, and the exploration of the energy frontier will fall to CERN with HEP’s and DOE’s support. But the mandate for HEP will now shift to exploring the Intensity Frontier via other energy beam research that will complement whatever the LHC finds.

In other words Tevatron and the LHC were kind of redundant, and the DOE and HEP program are respectfully bowing out of the Higgs race to focus on other aspects of particle physics that aren’t already being probed by more powerful experiments elsewhere in the world. It’s a letdown for those who wanted to see Tevatron find the Higgs first, but it’s a practical move that will keep science moving forward while keeping Fermilab and it’s HEP program at the forefront of particle physics.

Discover’s Cosmic Variance blog has a nice history-rich eulogy that’s worth a read for further background on Tevatron and its healthy rivalry with CERN.

[Discovery News, Fermilab PDF]