- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 28, 2011

BATAVIA, ILL. (AP) - 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 recreate conditions that existed just after the Big Bang.

In the coming months, the eyes of the physics world will be focused here to see if researchers can confirm the 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.

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 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.

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.

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 underground track at nearly the speed of light before smashing them together to dislodge hidden particles that make up matter.

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