A week ago, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $2 billion in funding for high speed rail systems in the U.S. While this is welcome and long overdue news, another high speed transportation system is facing its final days and will be shut down for good later this year. And unlike the proposed high speed rail systems, which transports its passengers at top speeds of about 217 MPH, the soon-to-be-closed facility transports its subatomic passengers at 99.999954 percent of the speed of light. After accelerating along a nearly four mile track with the aid of magnets, the particles smash into one another at energies up to 1.96 trillion electron-volts.
The “Tevatron” particle accelerator/collider is located at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, 45 miles west of Chicago. While earning some notoriety on Saturday Night Live several years ago as the home of genetic mutation “Goat Boy”, Fermilab is also home to some of the most intensive research into the nature of subatomic particles. Besides the Tevatron collider, visitors to Fermilab can also see a herd of American bison which roams the grounds. They were brought in by Fermilab’s first director, Robert J. Wilson in 1969 in an effort to help preserve the breed and give local residents and visitors a chance to see the animals first hand. Thanks in part to Fermilab and other conservation efforts, the American bison is no longer on the list of endangered species.
The Tevatron was completed in 1987 and at the time was the most powerful particle accelerator on the planet. It only lost that title when the larger and more powerful Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland came online in 2008. For particle physicists, hopes ran high that the intense collisions taking place in the Tevatron would reveal the existence of the hypothetical “Higgs boson” particle, sometimes referred to as the “God particle”. Such a discovery would go a long way toward confirming the Standard Model of particle physics and is considered by many the Holy Grail in this field of study. Just recently, some anomalies in data readings at Fermilab indicated the possible existence of a previously unknown particle, though experts doubt that it’s the Higgs boson.
The $35-50 million per year to operate the facility was deemed too costly by the U.S. Department of Energy, and when Fermilab’s collider shuts down for good in September, it will just be one of many to be closed down for one reason or another over the years. In one spectacular case of government waste, the Supercolliding Super Conductor, which was slated to be built in Texas, was scrapped in 1993 after nearly two years of construction and 15 miles of a proposed 54 mile tunnel had been dug (and nearly $2 billion dollars spent). But the end of the Tevatron doesn’t mean the end of all particle research at Fermilab. In an effort to look for the silver lining, some even say it will spur research into other areas, such as neutrino particles. Still, the demise of the Tevatron, like the end of Nasa’s manned space program, seems to be a setback for “big thinking” when it comes to U.S. scientific research.