The Last Days of the Tevatron

When the Tevatron opened in 1983 at Fermi National Laboratory, outside Chicago, it was the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

The hunt for the Higgs boson, god particle or goddamn particle, the one that gives things mass, came closer to an end on July 4. Physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Europe, the world’s largest particle accelerator, found evidence of the particle and its energy field. But the LHC didn’t do it alone. The search has been a massive, costly and unprecedented international effort that began thousands of miles away, at another atom smasher beneath the Illinois prairie.

When the Tevatron opened in 1983 at Fermi National Laboratory, outside Chicago, it was the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, designed to smash protons and antiprotons together in order to see what makes up the universe. It was the dream of Robert Wilson, who grew up as a cowboy in Frontier, Wyoming, and who founded and designed the lab as an artistic symbol of the country’s thrust into the frontier of physics; epic buildings, sculptures, and buffalo were mainstays. And the Tevatron was the centerpiece. After its discovery in 1995 of the top quark, the most massive subatomic particle, the Tevatron was the toast of the global high energy physics community. Fast forward to 2009: when the LHC came online in Switzerland, scientists at the Tevatron’s two experiments, CDF and DZero, would join physicists at their European counterpart in the meticulous hunt. At times, as when the newer machine broke down, it seemed that America’s biggest science experiment might even beat the LHC to the punch.

When we visited Fermilab last year, however, the excitement of discovery had given way to an uncertain, black-hole-ish mood. The 29-year-old machine was still going strong, collecting data that scientists at Fermilab would pour over for years. But this giant gadget was also on death watch, the victim not just of obsolescence by its more powerful European successor, but of sharp budget cuts from Washington. Scientists lobbied for a reprieve, much as they had tried to do before Congress cancelled America’s next giant particle accelerator, the Superconducting Supercollider, in 1993. The Tevatron was, after all, an American masterpiece, one that helped make cancer-screening MRIs possible, created thousands of jobs, and trained engineers and scientists to build future machines like the LHC. Because it had provided 900 PhD students with research, one scientist estimated that the Tevatron itself had generated billions in economic growth. The machine, they argued, had three years of life left in it.

From some angles, there was nothing unusual about the demise of the Tevatron: science proceeds by iteration, improvement and progress, and ever since the days of giant telescopes, bold, costly experiments have collided head-on with economic constraints. But from some other angles, amidst a general austerity for basic science research in America and around the world, the amazing machine looked like a science-fiction relic from another age. Physics continues to explore, and even if the Higgs has been spotted, there’s a lot left to learn. But where’s that search going to happen? Does it matter? Ask the scientists at the lab on the old American frontier.