Alas, Tevatron, I Hardly Knew Ye

I mentioned it briefly on Twitter a little while ago, but I really felt that we needed to devote a day to discuss/mourn the Tevatron, that glorious bastard that has been smashing atoms here in America since before the LHC was a twinkle in Geneva’s eye.

And yet, on January 10, Fermilab received word from the Department of Energy that they would not be receiving the necessary funding to keep the Tevatron operational until 2014, as was their original goal. Which seemed smart, seeing as CERN announced last year that they would be shutting the LHC down for the whole of 2012 for repairs. Personally, I just think it’s so they don’t accidentally create a black hole, destroy the world, and prove the Mayans right, but…

Oh, come now. You all know I jest.

Sadly, this plan will not see fruition, and the Tevatron is slotted to be shuffled off into the particle accelerator cemetery (which is now the resting place of a whopping 15,000+ machines of various sizes, functions, and complexities) sometime in October.

While I remain an outspoken fangirl of the LHC, that doesn’t mean I don’t hold a fondness for the Tevatron as well. After all, it’s been around for much longer, and it has had a lucrative career to boot. After all, exactly which particle accelerator was it that discovered the top quark?

Oh, that’s right- the motherfucking Tevatron.

Since the Higgs boson is now the Holy Grail of physics, it’s not surprising that the Tevatron has been focused heavily on hunting out that elusive beastie, even when the mighty LHC finally became operational. What’s kept the Tevatron, which isn’t capable of the extremely high-energy collisions of the LHC, in the game is the fact that it has been going about searching for the Higgs boson in a different manner than the LHC.

The LHC smashes twin proton beams together at current energy levels of 7 trillion electron volts (TeV) and with an eventual maximum energy level of 14 TeV. The Tevatron, on the other hand, smashes protons and antiprotons together at a mere 1.96 TeV. And while this may make the Tevatron seem like a laughable, decrepit old thing next to the shining glory of CERN’s supercollider, the energy of the beams may make less of a difference than you think when it comes to finding the Higgs boson.

See, the Higgs boson has a relatively low mass, so what may be more important in the long-run is the intensity (number of particles) of each beam. Currently, both the LHC and the Tevatron are operating with similar beam intensities, putting them on fairly equal footing in the race for the Higgs. And while this would change in the future, as CERN expects the LHC to triple its beam intensity this year, remember that the Tevatron has been operating with this beam intensity for about seven years. The amount of data they have already gathered and sifted through is something the CERN group lacks.

Because of their different types of beams (proton/antiproton vs. twin proton) and varying energies, the two accelerators actually hunt for the Higgs in different ways. The Tevatron is looking for the Higgs’ most common decay products (a bottom quark and its antiself), while the LHC is hunting for a rarer decay mode (two photons). So, while the search remains competitive, the approaches have actually been fairly complementary.

Besides, the lower energy of the Tevatron produces a lower background of extra particles, which makes its search a cleaner process, meaning it would take less time to dig the data for the Higgs out of the whole.

In my opinion, it’s actually the loss of the DZero (D0) project that is going to hurt the most. Remember when we talked about the Tevatron’s findings regarding CP violation? Because the Tevatron collides protons and antiprotons, its actually better suited than the LHC to the study of the imbalance of matter and antimatter in the universe. I feel we’re losing an important resource that would (and already has) help us probe into this question, which is one of the deepest mysteries in the universe.

And now all that potential will be destroyed. Alas.

But, as the Ron Pope song has it, beautiful things never last, that’s why fireflies flash. The Tevatron had a sparkling reign as a king of the particle physics world, but now it’s time to officially retire and pass the torch to the LHC.

Farewell, Tevatron.

This is the way an era ends- not with a bang but a whimper.

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