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The end of American atom smashing

Published time: September 30, 2011 17:24
Edited time: September 30, 2011 21:24
Photo from United States Department of Energy

Photo from United States Department of Energy

After a quarter of a century, scientists operating underneath the surface of the Earth today will pull the plug on Tevatron, bringing the massive atom smasher to a screeching halt.

And just like that, another nail is hammered into the coffin for the American scientific community.

Many scientists have touted Tevatron as the most successful atom smasher in the history of physics. Since 1985 it has been operating outside of Chicago, Illinois and its technology has allowed experts to pinpoint some of the building blocks of the universe.

Abroad, however, the Large Hadron Collider, a similar structure underneath the ground at the French/Swiss border, has usurped the Tevatron as the most powerful machine of its type. Its accomplishments since its construction in 2009 have been remarkable, and American investments domestically cannot compete with the research being carried out by the LHC.

In other words, the Tevatron is no match for what lies across the pond and underneath the Earth.

“The machine has discovered what it could discover within its reach,” Gregorio Bernardi tells The Washington Post. Bernardi is a physicist at Fermilab, the Energy Department facilities that has overseen the Tevatron for years.

At 2pm this afternoon, Bernardi will pull the plug on Tevatron. “That will be it,” he tells The Post. “Then we’ll have a big party.”

Other scientists don’t necessarily see a reason to rejoice, however.

Pierluigi Catastini formerly worked for Fermilab, but in recent years he left the States to help out with the LHC. Others have followed suit since the LHC began operation two years ago and more are expected to do the same.

"The LHC is almost brand new," Catastini tells PC Magazine. "Many of the people I worked with at the Tevatron are now working at the LHC. The experiments are obviously bigger, but the atmosphere is like when I joined the Tevatron [in 2003]. People were very excited, we were all looking for something new. Now the future is the LHC. If you really want to be at the edge of the energy frontier, you want to be here."

That edge once belonged to America but has become dulled in recent years. The science community suffered a similar blow only months ago when NASA retired their long-standing shuttle program, forfeiting the space race to other countries. Notably both China and Russia have continued to invest in a space program and look to beat out America towards the next major discovery.

Over 2,000 scientists are currently employed at Fermilab and many intend on staying to work on other projects. Its crowning glory, however, will be no more by this afternoon. With the Tevatron gone, those looking to continue their career in physics may follow Catastini abroad. The Chicago Tribune reports that 50 scientists have took off from Fermilab in recent times in order to work on the LHC. They add that almost half of the universities in America that have conducted research in the country have moved their studies away from Fermilab and over to Europe.

And even with a large staff as of now, earlier this year Fermilab asked 100 employees to volunteer to receive severance packages.

Even outside of the science realm, Americans are unsure that the retiring of Tevatron is a wise move. Speaking to the Tribune, Republican Congresswoman Judy Biggert said, "I think basic science is the most important thing that will help us to compete in the global economy.”

"We have to realize that basic science really drives industry and creates the jobs our children and grandchildren will enjoy,” added Biggert.

Meanwhile, Americans continue to suffer from an unemployment epidemic which earlier this week Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke called a “national crisis.”

Fermilab will be hosting a live broadcast online of the Tevatron’s shutdown later today.

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