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America to end its search for the 'God particle'

The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) is pulling the plug on the Tevatron, the only American particle collider capable of finding the Higgs boson, or 'God particle.'

By Staff writer / January 13, 2011

The Tevatron is buried deep underground, but the location of the giant particle collider has been traced in red on this undated photo. The Tevatron collider, four miles in circumference, accelerates protons and antiprotons close to the speed of light and smashes them into each other millions of times per second as it searches for the Higgs boson, or 'God particle.' With the Tevatron's funding cut, the search will continue only in Europe, at CERN.

Fermilab / UPI / Newscom / File

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For nearly three decades, the United States has hosted the world's most powerful particle collider – a critical tool scientists use to probe the nature of matter and the origins of the universe.

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This week, the director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which operates the machine, announced that the lab would pull the plug on the device, known as the Tevatron, at the end of the current fiscal year.

The announcement marks the second high-profile US science and technology program to undergo significant transition in 2011. Word of the Tevatron's retirement comes as NASA's shuttle program works its way through its final two scheduled flights.

In each case, fiscal challenges have prompted presidential administrations to seek ways the US can remain an influential player – but with sustainable budgets. And the rising cost of ambitions in both spheres have dictated a higher degree of international participation on future projects than has been the case historically.

To some in the field, the loss of the Tevatron – with no next-generation US replacement – represents evidence of erosion eating away at America's scientific leadership. Others see it as a transition that still allows for cutting-edge physics.

The US still hosts a powerful collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. But it's only capable of about 10 percent of the Tevatron's collision energy, and it's designed to answer a different set of research questions.

Either way, the announcement that the Tevatron's Nobel-Prize-winning program will end has been anticipated for years, acknowledges Stuart Henderson, the lab's associate director for accelerators. But it was disappointing, he says.

In Europe, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym CERN, brought its Large Hadron Collider on line in late 2009. The LHC is designed to smack protons together at energy levels seven times higher than those achieved at the Tevatron. The startup came a year late, after an initial attempt in 2008 uncovered electrical problems that required complicated repairs.

Scientists anticipate discovering new particles and evidence of new physics in the sub-atomic debris those LHC collisions will generate.

Throughout construction of the LHC in Europe, there was an understanding on this side of the Atlantic "that there would be an end to colliding beams here at Fermilab," Dr. Henderson says. In many respects, he says, the program at Fermilab has gone on longer than many originally envisioned.

But last summer, researchers at Fermilab announced that a much-sought elementary particle that the LHC also has on its Most Wanted list – a particle known as the Higgs boson, and sometimes called the "God particle" – might be within reach of collision energies the Tevatron was achieving at Fermilab. The Higgs boson is a hypothesized particle associated with a quantum field that imparts mass.

That announcement generated a good deal of excitement at the lab, Henderson says.

But to take advantage of the new information, the lab would have to keep the Tevatron running for up to three more years. In the end, the US Department of Energy was unable to find the money without threatening the health of other research programs the high-energy physics community had set as priorities.

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