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Life after Tevatron: Fermilab Still Kicking Even Though It Is No Longer Top Gun

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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MINOS detector, courtesy Fermilab

Fermilab is dead. Long live Fermilab!

The Tevatron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., which had been the top U.S. particle collider—and for many years the most powerful such machine in the world—shut down last September. The collider’s physics breakthroughs, including the 1995 discovery of the top quark, were so eminent that it was easy to think of the Tevatron and its host institution as one and the same.

But even though protons and antiprotons no longer course through the six-kilometer loop of the Tevatron, life at Fermilab goes on. Physics World editor Margaret Harris reports on a recent lab visit (registration required):

The end of the Tevatron does not, however, mean the end of Fermilab. “We have 10 accelerators here on site,” says Fermilab physicist Steve Holmes, with the merest hint of irritation. “We turned one of them off, okay?” Like several scientists I spoke to, Holmes was keen to point out that colliding high-energy beams of particles is not the only way of discovering new physics with accelerators.

The U.S. has surrendered the “energy frontier” to Europe, Harris notes: the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, outside Geneva, is designed to accelerate particle beams to seven times the energies achievable in the Tevatron. New and ongoing projects at Fermilab, Harris writes, are focused on physics questions that do not require a gigantic, world-beating collider. Many of these projects depend less on energy and more on intensity—producing beams with copious amounts of particles to look for rare decays or interactions.

Take neutrino physics, for instance. Neutrinos are slippery subatomic particles that can only be seriously investigated with an intense particle beam. They interact so rarely with ordinary matter that for every 1,500 or so neutrinos registered by a massive, specially designed detector, billions more will pass right through. So you need to create a lot of them. Neutrinos, already mysterious, became even more so last fall when a European experiment called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus) found that neutrino pulses appeared to make the journey from CERN to an underground lab in Italy a bit faster than the speed of light, in violation of one of the central tenets of modern physics.

Fermilab has its own cutting-edge neutrino experiment that should be able to confirm or (as most suspect) refute the OPERA claim—as well as probe other puzzles of these particles. MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) shoots a beam of neutrinos through two detectors, one at Fermilab and one in a Minnesota mine some 735 kilometers away. In addition to clocking the neutrinos to determine their speed, MINOS is investigating an odd phenomenon called neutrino oscillation. Occasionally one of the particles oscillates between “flavors” on its journey across the Midwest, so that a muon neutrino becomes a tau neutrino. A planned project called NOvA will succeed MINOS, extending the baseline of the neutrino experiment to about 800 kilometers and adding a much larger detector on the Minnesota end.

Then there’s the proposed Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment, or LBNE, which would send neutrinos on an even longer interstate journey of 1,300 kilometers from Fermilab to a subterranean detector in South Dakota. LBNE, Harris reports, would be able to compare the flavor oscillations of neutrinos to those of their antiparticles. A major question about neutrinos is whether they are their own antiparticles. And a proposed multibillion-dollar lab upgrade called Project X would add new proton accelerators to increase the intensity of the beams feeding LBNE and other Fermilab projects.

As the memory of the Tevatron fades, all eyes are on the high-energy pursuits of the Large Hadron Collider, which has a good shot of finally discovering the long-sought Higgs particle this year. But no one lab, however powerful, can do it all. Older particle labs remain vibrant centers of discovery—places such as Brookhaven National Laboratory and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory were also once known primarily for their particle colliders but have since developed diverse research campaigns. If Fermilab can convince Congressional funders that the intensity frontier is worth exploring, this new direction may yield U.S. physicists a few surprises.

“This is an opportunity for the U.S. to establish a leadership position in this very important area of physics that will last for decades,” Fermilab’s Holmes told Physics World. “If we do it right, we’ll just blow away the competition.”

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. B.T.See 6:40 am 02/4/2012

    With little knowledge about classical physics and relativity theories, i assume CERN’s neutrinos were experienced Lorenz Transform (Lorenz Shortening). Electromagnetic waves would not experience Lorenz Transform because they have no mass. As with a tiny mass just not equal to zero, neutrinos travel in nearly light speed are experienced Lorenz Transform where they enter one point and come out at another point far away instantanously in a condition where the space field was compressed and bended (or even folded) in higher dimensional perspective.Satellites could not detect this because they did not detect the compression of space field (even though it is a very hard solid as it was happened underground i still prefer to call it space field).Faster-than-light neutinos was something like a illusion as it happened before when there is an experiment done underwater to find out tachyon.

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  2. 2. B.T.See 12:29 pm 02/5/2012

    Observed Speed is not equal to Actual Speed (about faster-than-light phenomenon)

    i wish to point out here, something that every physicist know but may not notice that Observed Speed is not same with Actual Speed, make a simple example from general relativity, a spacecraft was attracted and absorbed by a black hole, then it travel at a speed below light’s speed in the worm hole and came out as a wreckage (in particles form)from the connected white hole; now, its wreckage may located at 100 light-years away from its origin, if the process take 10 minutes, then the Observed Speed is 100 light-years (in km)/10 minutes (in seconds),the Observed Speed should obviously far more faster than light’s speed, however, in that whole process, the spacecraft (and its wreckage) never travel faster than the light’s speed. It is its Actual Speed.

    Link to this
  3. 3. B.T.See 7:29 am 02/7/2012

    Proposed Mathematical Idea for the Actual Speed of Neutrinos.

    i wish to propose a mathematical idea for the Actual Speed of “Faster-than-light neutrinos” phenomenon, it is not a scrutinized and proven mathematical formula but just to give a clearer picture on this matter.

    If the Observed Speed = Distance / Time , then

    the Actual Speed = (Distance) (Space Higher Dimensional Shortcut Variable) /
    (Time) (Relativitic Time Variable)

    where (Space Higher Dimensional Shortcut Variable) is 0 , on the fact that Observor or Detector (static object) and Neutrinos (moving object) has different properties of time.

    Conclusion, it is very hard to justify the speed of neutrinos is greater than light speed and most probably is not becoz the Observor or Detector (static object) and Neutrinos (moving object) have No Absolute Space and have No Absolute Time.

    Link to this
  4. 4. B.T.See 7:38 am 02/7/2012

    Sorry for typing error, the correction should be:

    the Actual Speed = (Distance) (Space Higher Dimensional Shortcut Variable) /
    (Time) (Relativitic Time Variable)

    where (Space Higher Dimensional Shortcut Variable) is 0 , on the fact that Observor or Detector (static object) and Neutrinos (moving object) has different properties of time.

    Link to this
  5. 5. B.T.See 7:48 am 02/7/2012

    Sorry again for a part of mistake, the correction should be:

    the Actual Speed = (Distance) (Space Higher Dimensional Shortcut Variable) /
    (Time) (Relativitic Time Variable)

    where (Space Higher Dimensional Shortcut Variable) is less than 1 and is depending on Space Field Density, Space Field Curvature and Lorenz Shortening, etc.

    and (Relativitic Time Variable) is greater than 1 , on the fact that Detector or Observor (static object) and Neutrinos (moving object) have different properties of time.

    Link to this

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