Clever Apes #19: Godspeed, Tevatron

September 27, 2011

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(WBEZ / Michael De Bonis)

The Tevatron particle collider shut down in September of 2011. Once the highest-energy collide in the world, it is survived by its descendants, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven, and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The Tevatron was 28.

If ever a machine was deserving of an obituary, it is the Tevatron. Housed at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, the Tevatron spent decades at the frontier of science. Its collisions offered glimpses into nature’s secret places, on the tiniest scales and highest energies ever probed.

Listen to the episode:

Clever_Apes_19_Godspeed_Tevatron.mp3

But last year the frontier moved off the Illinois prairie, over to Europe, where the LHC has dwarfed the Tevatron into obsolescence. Nearly anything the Tevatron could do, the LHC can do better. And so the government pulled the plug, with the Tevatron going dark on Friday, September 30. In this installment of Clever Apes, we take a moment to remember the good times – the tau neutrinos, the luminosity records, the strange-B oscillations … and of course, the one thing normal people may have actually heard of, the top quark. That was the Tevatron’s high water mark, discovering the linchpin of the Standard Model – a kind of periodic table of fundamental particles and forces.

The control room crew runs all of Fermilab's big machines. (WBEZ / Gabriel Spitz

And we consider the real value of basic science. Quarks don’t end recessions. Neutrino oscillations aren’t going to solve global warming. But there are a few benefits that belong on the balance sheet in the Teavtron’s favor. One is that, like NASA, pushing at the boundaries of our knowledge tends to bring ancillary benefits. In Fermilab’s case, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and specialized radiation therapy for cancer are part of the accelerator’s lineage.

But more basic than that, is that this kind of research into the nature of nature seems like part of the human condition – lab director Pier Oddone calls it the “inquiry gene.” Another Fermilab director – founder Robert Wilson – said it incredibly eloquently in 1969. He was testifying before Congress, and it feels so appropriate for this week that I include it here in its entirety:

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.

SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?

DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.

SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?

DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.

SENATOR PASTORE. Don't be sorry for it.

DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country, but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.

Fermilab's Wilson Hall rises above the Illinois prairie. (WBEZ / Gabriel Spitzer