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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. 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 therefor 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.

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.

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